Keeping Kribs: The Culture of Pelvicachromis Cichlids
Author: William Berg
If you’re seeking a small fish that can add action and a rainbow of sparkling colors to your freshwater aquarium, the kribensis cichlid (Pelvicachromis pulcher) is definitely worth considering. This species is a great choice for the novice keeper and can even be recommended to experienced aquarists.
Affectionately referred to simply as “krib” within the hobby, this West African cichlid is called kribensis because it was once known as P. kribensis. The modern accepted scientific name is P. pulcher, which roughly translated means “beautiful belly fish.” In Latin, pelvica is the plural of pelvis, chromis refers to a fish (possibly a perch), and pulcher means beautiful. That is certainly a fitting description for a species in which the belly of the female takes on a vibrant, cherry red flush throughout the breeding period. Since an established krib couple spawns regularly, you can expect to see a lot of this coloration in your tank.
P. pulcher is quite resilient to disease, and provided with the right care it can live up to five years. As an additional bonus, kribs readily breed without any special coaxing. They also engage in highly entertaining fry-rearing behavior, wherein they herd their offspring around the tank for several weeks.
The male can reach a length of 4 inches (10 cm), while the female usually stays around 3 inches (8 cm). Both sexes have a dark longitudinal stripe running from the mouth to the caudal fin, with yellow and black striping by the face. There is a lot of orange-red, yellow, and sometimes blue, coloration along the dorsal and caudal fins. In some specimens, the dorsal and caudal fins sport gold-ringed ocelli (eyespots). Their pectoral and anal fins are bluish to purple, and you can sometimes notice a green sheen on the gill plate. The abdomen is a reddish pink, a color that intensifies during the breeding period, especially in the female.
Geography And Habitat
P. pulcher inhabits the drainage area of the Ethiope River in the Niger Delta in West Africa. One of the reasons why it is so sturdy and easy to care for in captivity may be due to the fact that within its natural range, it may encounter several different water conditions. A species forced to handle different environments and arbitrary alterations (brought on by varying water flow from streams) must be able to cope with diverse habitats.
Close to the sea, the Niger Delta’s water is hard, alkaline, and slightly brackish. On the other hand, the streams that feed the delta are much less hard and alkaline, and they do not get any saltwater. The lowest-lying streams are actually soft and acidic blackwater habitats.
P. pulcher inhabits both slow- and fast-moving waters but is only present where it can find dense underwater vegetation. The water in its natural environment usually stays around 75° to 79°F (24° to 26°C), and most localities have soft water and a pH value of 5.6 to 6.9. Tank-raised specimens are normally more tolerant to alkaline conditions (in some instances, up to a pH of 8.5!) than wild-caught ones.
Kribensis cichlids are hardy and do not grow very large, two factors that make them possible to keep, even in small aquariums. A 10-gallon (38-liter) aquarium is large enough for a single pair, but if you wish to combine them with other fish, you’ll need more space. Despite being fairly peaceful creatures, both sexes will grow territorial and aggressive while protecting their spawn. Therefore, it is important that the aquarium includes natural borders and at least one cave to provide hiding spots for other fish.
Imitating the Krib Environment
In the wild, kribs are only found in environments containing patches of dense underwater vegetation, and will appreciate having plants in the tank. Kribs normally don’t eat them, so you can use live flora to decorate the tank if you wish. However, it’s a good idea to protect the plant base with heavy stones, or choose species that tolerate being uprooted since they sometimes dig. Due to this digging habit, sand or fine gravel without any sharp edges is recommended as bottom substrate in order to prevent injury.
Kribs are often kept in community aquariums with other fairly passive fish, such as other dwarf cichlids, tetras, and small barbs. They should not be housed with slow-moving species with long and flowing fins because they can turn into fin nippers in such company.
It is never a good idea to house these fish in an aquarium without a cave. They love hiding spots, and providing at least one will make them much happier, while also decreasing the risk that they’ll become overly aggressive during the breeding period. By cleverly using numerous caves and natural borders, it is even possible to house several couples in the same tank. Flowerpots, coconut shells, or PVC pipes will be just as appreciated—but make sure there is an opening just large enough for the fish to use as their entrance.
Use plants, rocks, and other decorations to make it possible for the couple to claim a small territory around their cave. Otherwise, they may end up trying to defend the entire tank from perceived “intruders.” If they still act violently toward other fish outside of their territory, the aquarium may be too densely stocked. Bottom and cave dwellers are especially shunned because they will compete for space.
Kribs are omnivores and therefore very easy to feed. They will readily accept most types of food. Keeping them on a varied diet will boost their immune system and provide a more comfortable life for them in captivity.
Sexing P. pulcher is not hard because adult females display brighter belly colors than the males. During breeding periods, a female’s belly develops the characteristic cherry red coloration. She is also smaller than the male, but at first glance can appear to be the larger of the two. This is because she is much more plump than the male. Measured from head to tail, the male is longer, but his body is more streamlined. Another way of sexing them is to look at the dorsal fin: if it ends in a point, you are looking at a male.
It is common for kribs to start courting within a week of being introduced to the tank, and any coaxing from the aquarist is usually superfluous. If your couple seems reluctant to breed, increase the water temperature to 80°F (27°C) and provide several suitable caves for them to explore. Feeding them plenty of live, meaty food can also induce spawning behavior. Despite being tolerant of a wide range of water parameters, they are more inclined to spawn in soft and acidic water.
Kribensis cichlids are devoted parents that form monogamous pairs and raise their offspring together. During spawning, the female deposits 50 to 300 eggs, usually in the roof of a cave. The male fertilizes them and both parents guard the eggs, taking shifts to allow each other to feed. The male also spends a lot of his time guarding the surrounding area from intruders.
When the eggs hatch after roughly three days, the tiny offspring will be moved to a pit or some other safe spot deemed suitable by the adults. At this stage, they are small enough to be moved inside their parents’ mouths. Their first food is usually tiny organic matter, but they are soon large enough to eat powdered flakes and newly hatched brine shrimp.
After five to ten days, the fry are usually large enough to be brought out of the cave to attend feeding excursions. However, they will still spend each night inside the cave where they were born, or any other cave deemed safe enough.
The female also starts taking the offspring out on small trips around the tank, hastily scurrying them back into their hiding spot as soon as she perceives any possible danger in the environment. Before letting the fry out, the female always scouts the territory to make sure it’s safe.
Feeding the Fry
Raising P. pulcher fry is usually not a problem because the parents do most of the work. As the fry grow larger, simply serve them ground flakes and larger and larger brine shrimp until they eat the same food as the adults. Ideally, the fry should stay with their parents until they are at least ½-inch (1.5-cm) long. Removing them too soon can make the male harass the female to death, as he’ll want to spawn again and she won’t be physically ready at this point.
If the parents eat their own offspring or fail to protect them from predators, don’t give up. They will soon spawn again, and most couples get the hang of it after a few trial runs. An established couple can be expected to spawn over and over again as long as both individuals are healthy.
Because they are dedicated parents, kribs become aggressive while protecting their young. This aggression is usually not a problem if the aquarium is large enough, but they will protect egg and fry—violently, if necessary. Giving a couple their own breeding aquarium is therefore the best solution in some situations.
Other Pelvicachromis Species
The genus Pelvicachromis contains a number of other species in addition to the famous P. pulcher. Sometimes you will find them under their correct names in fish stores and on price lists, but encountering them under erroneous labels is (unfortunately) also quite possible. Some sellers will just label them as “wild kribs” or make up a name for them based on appearance. With a little research and armed with some useful information, you will be able to spot—and care for—some of the most commonly occurring species and variants. However, if you don’t know which species or variant you have, soft, acidic water and a temperature in the 75° to 79°F (24° to 26°C) range is usually the safest bet.
Described in 2004, P. rubrolabiatus is a fairly new addition to the genus Pelvicachromis. The name is derived from the Latin words rubrum (red) and labia (lip), and alludes to the red lips sported by male members of this species. It has been available for many years under the label P. sp. “Bandi II.”
This species will grow bigger than other members of its genus and will display seven dark vertical bars on the body. Male P. rubrolabiatus also distinguish themselves from males of other species in the same genus by not having any coloration or patterning on the fins.
P. rubrolabiatus is native to the KolentÉ River basin in Guinea, where it inhabits soft, acidic waterways that flow through forested areas. Keep the water soft and the pH value below 6.0 in the aquarium. Being an omnivore, it needs both green and meaty foods in its diet to stay happy and healthy in captivity. Be forewarned that this is a fairly hostile species.
The yellow-cheeked kribensis (P. subocellatus) was described in 1872. There have been a lot of mix-ups and mislabeled fish in the aquarium trade, so older accounts regarding this species are not always reliable. The specific name subocellatus is derived from two Latin words: sub, which signifies “under,” and ocellatus, which means “spot.”
Compared to most other members of its genus, P. subocellatus has a very high body. The female is more colorful than the male and is adorned with the yellow cheeks from which this species’ common name derives. She also sports a striking, reflective white pattern on her dorsal fins, and the color of her belly intensifies to pinkish red, bordered by two broad stripes of blackberry blue during the spawning period. The yellow coloration is also found on the end of her tail and on the upper half of the caudal fin, along with numerous black spots. These spots are also present on the back half of the dorsal fin.
The male also has some yellow on his cheeks, but the shade is more pastel than bright. The unpaired fins are also a bit yellow, but without any spotting. His dorsal fin sports a lavender band just below the red edge. During breeding periods, his belly will turn pinkish red, and the same can happen when he gets territorial.
P. subocellatus is hardier and less aggressive than the common krib and will grow to roughly the same size. It is actually quite strange that P. pulcher is so much more widespread in the hobby than this charming little fellow. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the fry of this species can be a bit tricky to keep alive.
The range of P. subocellatus spans from Gabon to Congo in Western Africa, where it can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including brackish water. The northernmost part of its range borders that of P. taeniatus, while its other geographical limit is the mouth of the Congo River. In captivity, it can be housed in both soft and hard water, and will tolerate a pH value from 6.0 to 8.0. This doesn’t mean that you should allow the parameters to swing back and forth; always give your fish a chance to unhurriedly grow accustomed to new conditions through slow, gradual changes. The recommended water temperature for this species is 72° to 79°F (22° to 26°C).
Due to its comparatively calm temperament, P. subocellatus is kept in both community and species tanks. A densely planted aquarium with plenty of caves and other hiding spots is recommended. This species is not fond of sharp light, so use floating plants to keep its home shaded. If your fish remain shy despite this, try adding some dither fish to the setup.
An active and beautiful species, P. taeniatus is comparatively easy to keep and breed. It is peaceful enough to introduce into a community aquarium with other nonviolent species, as long as the tank is properly decorated with caves, hiding spots, and natural territorial borders.
P. taeniatus is one of the most colorful members of its genus and has the smallest adult male size. The body is slim, and the males actually rival females in terms of color. This species comes in a vast array of different color morphs, and we will hopefully have an even broader spectrum to choose from in the future, as its native West African home is thoroughly researched by scientists and fish exporters.
This species is found in coastal Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea, where it inhabits still and slow-moving streams and rivers that run through forested regions. Soft and acidic water is recommended. Keep the water temperature in the 72° to 79°F (22° to 26°C) range with a pH of 6.0.
Vigorous water movement and harsh aquarium lighting are not appreciated by these fish. Include floating plants in the setup to dim the light, which will make them feel safer. As with all kribs, caves are virtually mandatory if you want them to stay happy and healthy. P. taeniatus fares best on a varied omnivore diet, with plenty of veggies and occasional servings of live or frozen meaty foods.
The taxonomic status of the rainbow krib (P. sacrimontis) is currently under debate. It was first described in 1977, but this description lacked a type specimen. Some authorities recognize it as a separate species, while others instead classify it as P. pulcher. It lives just east of the Niger River delta in Nigeria.
A juvenile rainbow krib is virtually indistinguishable from a juvenile P. pulcher, but it will eventually develop one of its first distinctive features: a shimmering turquoise blue patch on the cheeks and gill covers. Rainbow kribs maintain this color even when stressed, something to keep in mind when trying to recognize them in the fish store.
An adult female has uniformly dark dorsal fins without the golden border seen in P. pulcher females. During breeding periods her belly is scarlet red. While in spawning condition, two fairly dark longitudinal bands will run along her sides. These bands begin to fade as she starts caring for her offspring.
The male is just as ostentatious as the female, with one color morph showing a yellow belly and the other variant showing a red one. In the red-bellied color morph, the red proceeds from the belly to the lower half of the face.
Most aquarists are familiar with the common krib, partly because it’s so easy to breed in captivity, which makes it possible for pet shops to keep the price down. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, there is a long list of other interesting species in the genus Pelvicachromis to choose from, all more or less similar to P. pulcher but with their own distinct appearance, temperament, and habits. They are sometimes imported under their true names and sometimes mistakenly shipped together with wild-caught P. pulcher. For the aquarist who knows what to look for, it is quite frequently possible to find hidden treasures in display tanks labeled Pelvicachromis pulcher, or simply “wild krib.”