Keeping and Breeding Fairy Cichlids
Author: JosÉ MarÍa Cid Ruiz
Lake Tanganyika, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, holds 18 percent of the world’s available supply of fresh water. It is almost 435 miles (700 km) from north to south and just over 30 miles (48 km) from east to west. This lake boasts a unique ecosystem with exceptional biodiversity. Besides the 250 or more cichlid species found there, this massive reservoir is home to as many as 100 various species of other fish.
Introducing the Fairy Cichlid
It can be difficult for any species to find distinction with so many available from a single source. However, one endemic cichlid species stands out due to its attractive appearance and unique parental behavior. Variously referred to as the brichardi cichlid, the lyretail cichlid, and the Princess of Burundi, it is most commonly known as the fairy cichlid (Neolamprologus brichardi).
This species has a laterally compressed body and a long caudal fin in the form of a lyre, which together convey an impression of slenderness. It’s a beautiful fish with a uniform beige coloration and distinct eye markings; it has two black spots behind and below the eyes, along with a third spot of yellow-orange. There are also highlights of metallic blue around the eyes and at the edge of the fins. The fairy cichlid can grow up to 4 inches (10 cm), but generally, more developed adult males do not exceed 3 inches (8 cm) and females are slightly smaller.
Keeping fairy cichlids is simple enough, though certain conditions have to be met. The aquarium water should reflect the physicochemical parameters of their lake of origin, which may vary depending on the sampling point. According to various references consulted, the average temperature of shallow waters in Lake Tanganyika is around 77° to 79°F (25° to 26°C). The pH in the majority of sample points had a value of 8.4, but there were areas with measurements of 9.2.
Similar water conditions can be achieved by using commercially available cichlid salts formulated for this purpose. However, you can also prepare your own using sodium bicarbonate NaHCO3 (505 mg/l), magnesium sulfate heptahydrate MgSO4.7H2O (425 mg/l), potassium chloride KCl (58 mg/l), calcium chloride CaCl2 (34 mg/l), and sodium carbonate Na2CO3 (21 mg/l). In an attempt to match Lake Tanganyika’s water profile, a schedule of biweekly 20-percent water changes should be adhered to using the formula just described. Before the water is added to the tank, 72 hours of aeration will be necessary.
Recreating the Biotope
The aquarium should reflect the main features of the fairy cichlid’s original biotope, which is usually in waters close to the coast. A simulation of its natural environment should recreate a rocky maze mixed with sandy areas and some vegetation. Vallisneria spp., Ceratopteris spp., Nymphaea spp., Myriophyllum spp., and Potamogeton spp. are recommended, as these plants closely match the flora found in its natural habitat.
Fairy cichlids can be kept in spacious aquariums with other medium-sized species, such as the ornate julie (Julidochromis ornatus), in a tank no less than 75 gallons (284 liters). However, it is preferable to keep them in a single-species group in a dedicated aquarium of at least 40 gallons (151 liters) so they feel secure enough to spawn and raise their fry.
Depending on the relative number of fish versus space available in the tank, these fish can show very different—and sometimes contradictory—behaviors. For example, a dominant pair can either tolerate a group or proceed to systematically eliminate it. In my experience with N. brichardi, the strategy was to place a group of four young specimens (about five months old) of 1½ to 2 inches (4 to 5 cm) in a 40-gallon (151-liter) aquarium, and aquascape it as previously described. I also repeated this approach in a second aquarium with four other specimens. In just days, the first group began to interact in great harmony, although two of them worked closely in concert (I gather that the group consisted of one male and three females). In contrast, two specimens in the second group paired off and proceeded to attack another fish until significant injuries to its fins were visible. I had to remove the injured fish to prevent further damage.
With both groups, I developed a maintenance routine to encourage breeding, primarily based on a frequent feeding schedule (at least three times a day). Fairies are not problematic fish to feed. They are plankton feeders in the wild, and this can be mimicked in the aquarium. Live foods, such as tubifex worms and brine shrimp, can be used to supplement a diet rich in frozen foods, like mysis, mosquito larvae, and crustaceans (Daphnia, cyclops, etc.). Prepared foods containing some vegetables, such as Spirulina, are also appropriate to feed.
Within a group, there is always a special interaction between a male and a female that form a stable couple and spawn together. In general, established groups of N. brichardi interact together and care for a new school of fry as a community. However, this behavior of communal parental care is much more noticeable in spacious aquariums.
Under these described conditions, young N. brichardi will grow rapidly. In my case, the first spawning was observed just six weeks after they were added to a dedicated tank. Pre-spawning behavior can be very apparent because the parents will force themselves into a crevice, or else dig into the substrate, for a secure place to deposit their eggs. Sometimes they will spawn directly onto the hidden side of a rock situated in their territory. If you are attentive, you can observe the prolapse of the genital duct through the genital opening 12 to 24 hours prior to spawning; it will be noticeable to the naked eye.
Spawn volume varies greatly with the size and age of the specimens. Averaging the spawns made by my two groups, I estimate that young couples will produce between 50 and 60 viable eggs, while adult couples (a year or older) will produce between 100 and 120 eggs. Spawning frequency can also vary between every 14 to 40 days.
In general, the female is especially active in caring for the eggs, and later the larvae, while the male focuses on defense of their territory. Sometimes, the couple enters a period of “reproductive rest,” which can last between two and three months. During this period, they do not spawn.
Eggs and Fry
The eggs of N. brichardi are brown-green and have an elliptical shape. Between 1.5 and 1.75 mm, they attach to the rock surface by one of their poles. Forty-eight hours after fertilization, the generation of embryonic tissue and organs is clearly visible through the eggs. At 77°F (25°C), the larvae hatch in about 72 hours. They are born in a very poor state of development: the eyes are still in formation, the fins aren’t yet developed, and a transparent membrane covers the posterior half of the body. They have a large yolk sac, which remains attached to the surface of the rock by special glands in the head that secrete a sticky substance. At the time of birth, N. brichardi are just over a tenth of an inch (2.5 mm) in length.
The First Two Days After Hatching
At one day post hatch, the fairy cichlid’s eyes appear more formed, and their jaws are closed without any movement. They are still nourished endogenously by their yolk sac and if disturbed will make short, rapid movements of distress. By the second day, their eyes are completely developed and their jaws are open and in continuous movement.
Days Three to Five After Hatching
At three days, the gill operculum appears open, and they have already developed tiny pectoral fins. Meanwhile, the yolk sac will have reduced by 85 percent. The fourth day post hatch is when the larvae begin to swim freely; by now, they have already developed the caudal fin and are more darkly pigmented throughout the body.
Between the third and fifth day post hatch (although this varies, depending on the pair), the parents will move the larvae to a new shelter. Normally, it is different from the one used for spawning. At the slightest sign of danger, the larvae will rush to take refuge in the recesses of the new shelter.
One Week After Hatching
Within one week of hatching, the larvae still remain near their parents but school together in open waters close to the center of their territory. The fry are not bothered by other adults belonging to the group, which in turn seem to exert some protective behavior toward them. If the larvae are dispersed in excess, the parents (especially the female) catch them and redeposit them in the center of the territory again.
Fry and Adults
Sometimes two generations of fry have coexisted together in my tanks alongside an adult group. Again, available space is directly proportional to the behavior of your fairy cichlids. If there is room, adults and several generations of different ages can live harmoniously. By contrast, with limited space and crowding, cases of cannibalism are common.
As soon as the larvae begin to swim freely, supply them two to three times daily with newly hatched brine shrimp nauplii, which are quickly devoured. The nauplii of freshwater copepods of the genus Cyclops are also a good addition to their diet.
The number of fry has always been significantly lower than the number of eggs. But this loss can be mitigated by using fine sand instead of coarse gravel for the substrate; the fry can injure themselves on gravel, with fatal results. Another way to preserve larvae during the first weeks of free-swimming is to provide ambient light (such as light from the room) for 10 to 15 minutes after turning off the aquarium lighting. That way, scattered fry have enough time to regroup at the shelter where they spend the night. Following these suggestions, I have kept shoals of fairy cichlids whose numbers range between 20 to 80 fry.
If provided with intensive feeding and good water quality, young N. brichardi grow at a reasonable rate during the first month. Include Grindal worms and small specimens of Daphnia in their diet, coupled with a finely ground, freeze-dried food. Properly fed, they reach a size of ½ inch (1.3 cm) in length on average when they are only a month old. Within three months, they already exceed an inch (2.5 cm) in length and show a charming light beige coloration, with the end of their fins (except the pectoral) displaying a bright blue. Although it isn’t the best for their proper development, and if the aquarium is large enough, they can stay with the adult group without harmony being disturbed until reaching adulthood. New generations are sexually mature approximately when they reach 7 months old and at a size of about 2 inches (5 cm).
The fairy cichlid of Lake Tanganyika is not only beautiful, but its mating and parenting behavior is what sets it apart from the scores of different fish found in its type locality. Though a species-only aquarium of N. brichardi can be a treat, the highlight of keeping them is in breeding. If you’ve ever considered raising fry, or would like to practice the craft, this is one of the easiest cichlid species to breed in captivity. Before you know it, you’ll have a tank full of fairies all your own.