Breeding Neolamprologus caudopunctatus

Author: Iggy Tavares, PhD

An expert aquarist shares his breeding account of Neolamprologus caudopunctatus, a small shell-dwelling Tanganyikan cichlid that is easy to maintain in small and medium aquariums.

Cichlids in Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika is a deep-water, rift valley lake in East Africa with a myriad of different underwater habitats, ranging from rocky shores to sand-covered floors to deep water, with plenty of variation in between. Over time, a few hundred different endemic species of cichlid have evolved to occupy the different niches in the lake, from tiny ones such as Neolamprologus multifasciatusto large ones such as Cyphotilapia frontosa and Boulengerochromis microlepis. More and more cichlids of Lake Tanganyika have become available to the fish hobbyist in the past couple of decades. The varied colors and body shapes, lifestyles, and spawning patterns of these cichlids make them interesting additions to the home aquarium. I am particularly attracted to some of the smaller species, which are easy to maintain and study in medium to small aquaria. One such species is Neolamprologus caudopunctatus.

Picking Out a Pair

A population of Neolamprologus caudopunctatus (Poll, 1978) is found along the Zambian shores of Lake Tanganyika near Cape Chitika and Nkamba Bay. This biotope consists mainly of sand-covered floor with rocky outcrops and water depths that can range from 6 feet to more than 50 feet. The water here is hard and alkaline (hardness 11 to 17 degrees, pH 7.8 to 8.8) with a surface water temperature from 75° to 84°F (24° to 29°C). Here, during the day, shoals of N. caudopunctatus can be found hovering about 3 feet from the lake floor feeding on zooplankton.

N. caudopunctatus are cream-colored, torpedo-shaped fish. Males can eventually grow to 3 inches, while the females stay at 2½ inches. The caudal fin of these fish has pearl-colored spots that reflect light, giving rise to its Latin name “caudopunctatus.” The dorsal and anal fins are yellow, while the pelvic fins show a lot of white, particularly near the tips. Their blue-rimmed eyes nicely round off a good-looking fish. The male is only distinguishable from the female because he is slightly larger and has slightly longer pelvic fins. N. caudopunctatus do have an attractive fright or stress coloration, where they put on brown vertical stripes and look completely different. This pattern is also displayed when male fish are defending territory against other males, when they take a threatening head-down stance as they face off, usually at the edges of their territory.

I came across some N. caudopunctatus at one of my local tropical fish outlets in South London, United Kingdom. Here I noted that two fish were spending time together, which is usually indicative of a male and female fish in pre-spawning mode. Male and female N. caudopunctatus look very much alike, and it can be difficult to pick a pair, especially if all the fish are the same size. I could therefore not pass up this opportunity, so I made the purchase.

A Community Tank

The pair that I purchased was initially placed in a 36-inch long (28-gallon) community aquarium containing pairs of Neolamprologus brevis and Lamprologus ornatipinnis and two pairs of Neolamprologus multifasciatus. This tank was filled with hard London tap water (15 degrees hardness, pH 7.8) maintained at a temperature around 77°F (25°C) by a heater thermostat. The tank had an undergravel filter covered by a 3-inch bed of large gravel, which was not moved much by the cichlids (probably because of the large grain size). Water quality was maintained by a 25-percent water change every two weeks. Lots of shells provided homes for the L. brevis and N. multifasciatus while the L. ornatipinnis moved between shells and barnacle clusters also present in the tank. All the cichlids, including the newly introduced N. caudopunctatus, did well on a staple diet of good quality flake and granular food, which was supplemented once a week with some frozen brine shrimp.

The N. caudopunctatus settled down well in this aquarium, and within a few days they were swimming together as a pair throughout the open spaces in the tank. As they swam around, both the male and female were frequently touching each other, and I knew it was a sign of pre-spawning behavior. Within two weeks they had selected a barnacle cluster for their base but still spent a lot of time swimming around the tank. This behavior was quite different from the other shell dwellers in the tank, as those appeared tied to their shells and never ventured far from their abode.

The barnacle cluster was close to the shells occupied by the N. multifasciatus, who now came under sporadic attack from the N. caudopunctatus. Both pairs of N. multifasciatus stoutly defended their space. The barnacle cluster was moved away from the N. multifasciatus, causing the N. caudopunctatus to dive into the cluster during the move, only to appear in their fright colors as brown striped fish. The N. caudopunctatus were less than happy with the new position of the barnacle cluster and rejected it as home. They now started exploring other possibilities such as a large shell recently placed in the tank.

I wanted to raise the young N. caudopunctatus, so the pair was moved to its own smaller tank.

Breeding Behavior in a Small Aquarium

The pair of N. caudopunctatus was placed in the small tank (20 x 10 x 10 inches, 9 gallons) together with the large shell that they had been occasionally using and the barnacle cluster. This tank also contained a pair of blue-bellied Limia melanogaster livebearers. The tank had a fine coral sand substrate and an internal air-powered box filter. After a period of adjustment to their new environment in the small tank, the pair carried on where they had left off in the community tank. Their behavior included swimming together throughout the tank, fin flaring displays, and touching each other with their heads. The blue-bellied limia for the most part stayed near the water surface.

The large shell I placed in the tank was accepted as home, and both fish would enter and spend a little time in there. Also, when they felt threatened they would dive into the shell, which was big enough to hold both of them comfortably. They did not rearrange the fine coral sand substrate around their shell very much. Their gentle displays continued for about two weeks. However, on one occasion I did observe a short burst of mouth wrestling and presumed that spawning was not far off. As if on cue, one morning I noted five tiny fry outside the shell. Both parents were in attendance, with the female appearing to be dominant guardian. With so few fry, I left the pair of livebearers in the tank to act as dither fish, and I was not surprised when the fry had disappeared a few days later. About two weeks later, two new fry appeared with both parents remaining alert and still sharing their shell home. Again the fry disappeared after a few days.

A Change in Behavior

A week later there was a change in behavior. The female was now acting rather aggressively, and the male was banished to the outskirts of the territory, which in real terms translated to some 6 inches away from the shell. Here the male sulked, occasionally chasing the dither fish and putting on his brown striped coloration quite frequently. I never actually saw the female attacking the male, and in any case the tank offered a lot of cover in terms of barnacle clusters and Java moss. Moreover, if the male was close enough to the shell when I occasionally disturbed the tank to take photographs, both the male and female still dived into the shell.

The Fry Appear

Several days later there was a nice group of fry outside the shell, with only the female in attendance. I immediately removed the dither fish, which were cowering in the tank corners and being kept there by both the male and the female N. caudopunctatus. I left the male in the tank, as he did not appear to be in any danger. The fry were smaller and slimmer than those of other shell-dweller fry such as L. brevis or L. ornatipinnis. Their behavior was also different in that they hovered all around the shell, while for the most part the fry of the other species are ground-hogging; for this reason N. caudopunctatus fry are easily lost if there are any other fish in the tank. I started the fry off on fry food and finely ground flake food. As they got a little bigger their diet was supplemented with newly hatched brine shrimp nauplii and microworms. On this mixed diet I managed to grow 10 fry from this batch to a reasonable size before passing them on to a friend.

The female proved to be a good parent in that she kept the dither fish and male at bay. However, if I disturbed the tank (to move the Java moss, for example) she abandoned the fry and darted into her shell. The fry meanwhile dropped to the gravel and stayed still, depending on camouflage to save them from the perceived danger.

Spawning in the Wild

The selection of a shell as the spawning site by N. caudopunctatus in my tanks differs from what usually happens in the wild. In Lake Tanganyika, where the rocky sand-strewn biotope of N. caudopunctatus is devoid of Neothauma tanganyicense shells, the wild cichlids excavate holes under a rock to spawn. In the wild, several pairs might spawn in close proximity, each pair with just a small territory, giving rise to breeding colonies.

Great Additions to Your Tank

The Lake Tanganyikan dwarf cichlid N. caudopunctatus, with its pastel body coloration nicely offset by blue-rimmed eyes, is an attractive fish. These are fish with character, and they make excellent additions to a community tank of dwarf shell-dwelling cichlids where they occupy the free space between shells when they are not breeding.

Alternatively, they are a good choice for a breeding project in a small tank. N. caudopunctatus fry are smaller than that of Tanganyikan shell-dwelling cichlids and hence need a little more care and attention in the first few weeks of their life. I have thoroughly enjoyed studying and photographing N. caudopunctatus, and I would definitely recommend this dwarf cichlid to the tropical fish hobbyist.