Cichlidophiles: Thinking Outside the Glass Box: Spawning the Unspawnable Part1

Author: Wayne S. Leibel

For the past five months of columns I have droned on about discus taxonomy and systematics, and have stressed the scientific side of the cichlid hobby. I don’t know about you, but I myself am a bit tired—certainly of discus. In the next several columns I want to return to the hobby side of things and write about a strategy for spawning the “unspawnable” cichlids, those fish that, so far, have eluded our endeavors to catalyze their successful spawning in captivity.

The DOPE Principal

In fact, this topic has formed the basis for a talk I have been giving for the past several years to various hobby groups and workshops with cichlids as its focus. It is something of a pep talk, even inspirational I have been told. Not that I am the world’s greatest cichlid aquarist; I am certainly not. But I am willing to sometimes go the extra mile to coax a spawning from otherwise unspawnable fish and have, on occasion, been lucky enough to achieve that goal. What’s the secret to my occasional success? I call it the “DOPE” principal. Yes, I am a dope. That is, I am Determined, Obsessive, Persistent, and Experimental.

When the usual formula isn’t working, I try to think “outside the glass box.” The punch line is, to spawn any fish you must give them what they need. And to do that, you must find out what they need. So, this and succeeding columns will be about that, using a few notable examples from the recent cichlid hobby to illustrate my points. And the examples are not my own, they are recent achievements by my friend and accomplished cichlidophile, Lee Newman of Vancouver, Canada. They include recent successful captive spawnings of two notable South American cichlids, Satanoperca acuticeps and Retroculus xinguensisthathad, until recently, resisted all attempts to spawn them. And in these tales lie strategies for spawning any difficult cichlid (or any difficult fish, for that matter). So please let me meander for a bit on the personal side, by means of introduction to the topic of spawning the unspawnable cichlid, and to Lee.

My History with Cichlids (and Lee)

I first “met” Lee in 1983 when he responded to a line in Dr. Paul V. Loiselle’s magazine article on acaras, plugging the Geophagus-Aequidens Study Group, which I founded and ran. For two years (1982 to 1984) I edited and produced a homegrown quarterly,The Sifter, on the cichlids I loved—eartheaters and acaras—and recruited like-minded cichlid aquarists to join and share information about these interesting fishes, which at that time were unpopular orphans in the midst of the Rift Lake revolution.

Lee told me then that he had been a cichlid aquarist for 10 years and had spent the past five working with eartheaters and acaras. It was great to have him join our effort, and his five dollars, along with five dollars from each of the other 50-plus members (including some of the now best internationally known cichlid hobbyists who I count as friends), kept the effort barely afloat until it folded in 1984 after two years and eight issues. (This was the pre-computer age; I wrote many of the articles myself, typed the magazine’s contents, laid it out, produced it via photocopy machine, even collated and stapled it by hand, and mailed it out. It was definitely a labor of much love for me.) But the product wasn’t the point, it was the fellowship and exchange of information not available elsewhere.

Summer of 1991

Dial forward eight years to the summer of 1991. I was speaking at the Pacific Coast Cichlid Association’s (PCCA) July meeting, thanks to the kind invitation of my (sifter-generated) friend Chuck Rambo. Lee and his friend Mike Boyle elected to drive 1000 miles from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Jose, California—a car trip that took them 17 hours—to (they say) meet me and hear my talk on eartheaters. I think they were running illicit contraband….or maybe just fish. Luckily, the trip included time with aquarist Frank Glennon of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, which I suppose made it a “professional” trip, since both Lee and Mike were gainfully employed by the Vancouver Aquarium. I hope they liked my talk. I was certainly impressed by their over-the-top enthusiasm! But, as it turns out, Lee had been involved in long-distance/endurance car racing along with the fish thing, so this marathon was no big deal to him, it may have even been fun. And he was still young.

Nine Years Later

In June of 2000, Lee married Lisa Scott and invited me to be his best man. See how aquarium hobby connections can blossom? (Not to mention that Lisa is a tropical fish enthusiast herself and an accomplished aquarist with interests in West African cichlids.) This time I convinced him to drive south to Seattle, a mere 2½-hour, 120-mile trip, to pick me up after I spoke at the Greater Seattle Aquarium Society’s meeting (thanks to fish friends Kathy and Erik Olson), so I could actually be at his wedding to give him away. Somehow, I apparently inadvertently had “brokered” the initial meeting between Lee and Lisa that lead to their marriage, but that is another tangential, yet interesting tale. Now we get to the important part of this “personal stuff” and the point of this column.

Giving Cichlids What They Need

On our way back to Vancouver, Lee and I had one of the most interesting and inspirational fish talks I have ever had. By this time, Lee had become the Curator of Tropical Waters at the Vancouver Aquarium, and, understandably, a talented and accomplished cichlid hobbyist on his own time at home. (Prior to that appointment, he had gotten his degree in aquaculture at the Sir Sandford Fleming College in Lindsay, Ontario.) He had spawned a number of unusual eartheaters and had acquired an impassioned interest in Satanoperca species demonfish. Although he had spawned a number of these (e.g., S. jurupari, S. leucosticta, and various geographic variants of both), the “spotted” demonfish species (S. acuticeps, S. daemon, and S. lilith) were next on his hit list.

Successful captive spawning of these species had eluded most cichlid aquarists, even though some of these fish, in particular S. acuticeps, had appeared in aquarium literature of the early 1900s. As of Thomas Weidner’s 2000 eartheater magnum opusSouth American Eartheaters (Cichlid Press), they still hadn’t yielded their secret in aquariums on either side of the Atlantic. And this was not for lack of trying. There had been one or two reports of S. daemon spawning (e.g., American aquarists Tom Wojtech and Martha Clark, circa 1996): apparently they were not mouthbrooders (unlike the jurupari-types) but pit-spawning substrate brooders. But neither the newly described S. lilith (1988) nor S. acuticeps had yet given up their secrets.

Eartheater Difficulty

To give you some appreciation of their difficulty, even back in the 1980s eartheater enthusiasts were finding S. daemon to be challenging, even just to successfully maintain in captivity. One or more articles in The Sifter by several members agreed on their delicacy: if you looked at them the wrong way they bloated up and died, often “pitting out” (exhibiting neuromast erosion) first. And it wasn’t just for lax water maintenance, as one might guess. True, they needed soft acid water, and you did have to keep them clean, but even that was not enough. It got so bad that I wouldn’t even buy them anymore. In my fishroom, any S. daemon were dead as soon as they came down the stairs. It just took some time, usually not more than a few months. Dead fish swimming! (We still don’t understand what the missing piece is, though some few people have had success maintaining them long term and yes, even spawning them by now.)

S. lilith

Lee’s heartthrob then (other than his bride-to-be Lisa) was the newly described (Kullander and Ferreira 1988) S. lilith. In fact, he traveled with several other dedicated aquarists, including catfish guru Lee Finley, to the Rio Negro in search of this scaled Holy Grail, which he successfully returned alive to Vancouver. (They were and still are quite rare as imported stock in the hobby, the rarest of the three-spotted demonfish and dribbling in only as contaminants.) He also got to see where and how they lived as clues to their successful captive husbandry and possible aquarium spawning. Despite his success at growing them out to near one-foot length over the course of several years—itself a great achievement—they eventually went downhill and died. Like I said, dead fish swimming! (Sorry, Lee.)

“Unspawnable” Cichlids

Our conversation understandably turned to this incredible frustration. I had experienced similar frustrations with other, “unspawnable” cichlids myself. What was the missing ingredient? What did they need? As aquarists, our mission is to duplicate the natural environment as closely as possible to enable our fish to flourish and, if all is well, reproduce as they would in the wild. Some cichlids are “easy,” their requirements so loose and forgiving that almost any standard aquarium setup and regime works. Convict cichlids come readily to mind; they will spawn on wet grass on a diet of bread crumbs! But other cichlids are not so easy. For instance, “basketmouth” cichlids of the genera Chaetobranchus and Chaetobranchopsis, though medium-sized and having the gape-and-suck anatomy of other piscivores (e.g., the “real” basketmouth Acaronia nassa), instead make their living pumping and straining small swimming invertebrates from the water column. Unless you can duplicate this in the aquarium by feeding these relatively large cichlids newly hatched brine shrimp or live daphnia, at least for new wild imports, they soon wither and die. Been there, seen that, killed them.

Figuring Out What Cichlids Need

So, if our mission as successful aquarists is to give our fish what they need, we have to be able to find out what exactly they need, or get, in the wild. It could be food (as mentioned above), it could be water chemistry, it could be temperature, or photoperiod, or space, or spawning receptacle, or many other things.

Our conversation got more and more ridiculous. What if they need the flavenoid compound from the chitin exoskeleton of one particular species of ant that falls in the water in their biotope during the rainy season which they then eat in order to ripen eggs? What if they need a spawning territory of 12 x 12 x 144 square feet to feel “comfortable,” even if they are only 4 inches maximum at adulthood? What if the rocks in their highly oxygenated “riffle” tank need to be positioned just right, with the depth and the flow of the water over them moving fast, but not too fast?

How could we possibly spawn cichlids with these requirements, let alone discover what these requirements are? Indeed, Lee noted, on his way to netting his wild Rio Negro S. lilith just off a sandy beach, that he had hiked first through a cow pasture strewn with cowpies to get there—perhaps the lilithwould need cow manure added to their tank to make them feel “at home.” We both laughed, then thought better of it—just maybe, they did! It was clear to us both that to spawn the unspawnable, one must think outside the glass box and alter the usual formulaic cichlid aquarium approach to succeed.

Next time: “Cracking the Acuticeps Code.”