Mikrogeophagus altispinosus: A colorful butterfly for the Aquarium

Author: Radek Bednarczuk

With their elegant colors and peaceful temperament, Bolivian rams are like the butterflies of the fishkeeping hobby.

Bolivian Ram Basics

Spiny dorsal fins, a feast of colors, small size, and mouths shaped like parrot beaks are all characteristics that make the popular Bolivian rams aquarium favorites. The generic name of Mikrogeophagus altispinosus is composed of three Greek roots: mikr, or small; geo, or earth; and phag, or eat (in other words, “small eartheater”), while the specific epithet refers to the elongated first ray of the dorsal fin and was created from two Latin roots: alt, or high; and spinos, meaning spiny.

The species was originally described as Crenicara altispinosa. Later the fish was placed in the genus Apistogramma; however, as its morphology and spawning behavior are similar to M. ramirezi, it was moved to a new genus set up for that species. Some researchers believe this species to be more closely related to the genus Biotodoma than the Venezuelan ram, on account of some morphological details, namely the shape of the dorsal fin and the head, as well as the body coloration and the absence of a large spot on the third crossband (typical of Mikrogeophagus ramirezi).

There is an interesting and complicated story connected with the genus Mikrogeophagus, as well. A well-known fish researcher, Frey introduced the genus Microgeophagus, and spelled it with a “c,” in 1957. In 1968 Meulengracht-Madsen introduced the name Mikrogeophagus, spelling it with a “k.” This led to a dispute among the scientists as to which of the two names was valid. You would expect that Mikrogeophagus would be considered a junior synonym of Microgeophagus, but it is the former name that wound up being judged valid.


These cichlids live in Bolivia and Brazil. Known localities inhabited by this species lay in the catchment of the upper Rio Madeira (Bolivia). The fish are mostly found in shallow, sandy ponds with a temperature of around 27°C (81°F), a pH of 7 to 7.6, and a carbonate hardness below 100 mg/l.


This cichlid is incredibly colorful, and fully colored adult specimens shimmer with all the hues of the rainbow. Large eyes, a characteristic snout reminiscent of a parrot’s beak, elongated anterior rays of the dorsal fin, a black eye stripe, and a black spot on the lateral line are the traits that dominate the appearance of these beautiful fish.

It is also worth knowing that in a state of stress, six indistinct crossbands appear on the body of the fish; and during brood care the yellowish body color of the female, the black eye stripe, and the black lateral spot become very intense.

Aquarium Husbandry

These dwarf cichlids are best bought young, in a group of six to eight specimens; then, in just a few months, we can expect a pair to be formed. They do not require very soft and extremely acidic water to live and develop properly, and they can adapt to various chemical parameters. The pH can range from 6.5 to 7.5, the GH should be below 10, and the temperature around 25° to 28°C (77° to 82°F). These cichlids grow to around 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 inches) in length, but you should use at least a 50-liter (15-gallon) tank for one adult pair.


With regard to the aquarium decor, we should not forget fine sand in which these dwarf cichlids will dig zealously. Pieces of driftwood will be useful as well, providing the fish with refuge in the face of a threat. Also consider flat stones on which the fish will lay their eggs if the conditions are favorable. Plants would be a useful element in the tank setup, as these fish look great against the background of lush greenery. However, we should not forget to leave open space for swimming, as these are active fish. To make them bolder it is advisable to include companion fish, such as species of the genus Apistogramma or small characins.

Water Conditions

We should not forget good filtration, and partial water changes should be made weekly to reduce the level of nitrates, which, in large concentrations, negatively influence the well-being of these dwarf cichlids and can even cause mortality in young specimens.


As far as feeding is concerned, the food should be small in size and varied; both live and dry foods are equally greedily taken. However, we should take care not to overfeed, as this species is voracious.


Males are slightly longer (10 cm, or 4 inches, in length) and slimmer than the females, which in turn are stouter and more rounded in the belly area. The mature males are very active and often display to the females, spreading their fins. When a female catches a male’s eye, he will start courting her, chasing away other admirers.


At the time of spawning, the blunt genital papilla of the female becomes visible; the male’s papilla is more pointed. The courtship can last for a few days and consists of reciprocal lateral displays and mouthing the stones (or wood) where the eggs will subsequently be laid. When a suitable stone has been chosen, thorough cleaning commences, and then pits are dug around it in the sand, to which the larvae will later be transferred.

During this time the male becomes very aggressive, so it is advisable to separate the pair from the rest of the fish with a divider placed crosswise in the aquarium. A few hours after the cleaning of the stone, the female begins the act of spawning with a few dry runs, while the male watches her keenly. Then the spawning process begins; the female lays the ovoid, light gray eggs, a few at a time, and they are immediately fertilized by the male. The spawning lasts for about an hour, and in this time around 100 to 300 eggs will be laid in a circle.


When the spawning is finished, the female takes the position over the egg plaque and fans it with her pectoral fins; that is, she uses one of them for fanning, and the other to maintain her position above the spawn. In the meantime the male protects the territory, but sometimes he relieves his partner for a few seconds. After about 48 hours (depending on the temperature) the larvae hatch from the eggs. Sometimes the female has to help extricate them from the egg shells, and then she will carry them in her mouth to a pre-dug pit. After another five to eight days the larvae become free swimming, and then they can be given freshly hatched Artemia and microworms. Water changes of 40 percent should be performed every other day, using water of the same physical and chemical parameters, as the hatch is sensitive to elevated concentrations of nitrates, which can lead to large losses.


The juveniles are very active, and the parents are not very good at protecting the territory. As a result the fry can easily become food for the other fish, which is another reason why it is advisable to separate them. They can be moved to another aquarium, or, as I have already mentioned, the parents with the young can be divided from the rest of the fish with a tank divider. After about six months, well-fed young fish will, on average, reach a length of 4 cm (1½ inches).

This species usually lays its eggs on a hard surface (stone, wood, etc.), and only very rarely in pits dug in the sand. In soft water it is more prolific, and interestingly, it forms very strong monogamous relationships.

Perfect for Novice Enthusiasts

These dwarf cichlids have all the characteristics of a popular aquarium fish. They are extremely colorful, of medium size, omnivorous, and furthermore they can adapt to various environmental conditions and breed easily. On account of their peaceful temperament they are the perfect inhabitants for community aquariums, and they can be confidently recommended to all novice enthusiasts of South American cichlids.

See the full article on TFH Digital http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/200803/#pg93