The Clown of Killies: Epiplatys annulatus
Author: Mike Hellweg
The colorful stripes of the clown killie, coupled with its miniature size, make it great for smaller setups. Here an expert aquarist gives us all the essentials for this species, from maintenance to spawning.
The Clown of Killies: Epiplatys annulatus
One of my all-time favorite fish is a miniature killifish from far western Africa known in the trade as the clown killie—Epiplatys annulatus. Coming from the swamps and slow-flowing forest streams of southern Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, these colorful and peaceful little fish can be a surprising challenge for even the advanced hobbyist.
History and the Hobby
This fish was first described as Haplochilus annulatus by the famed Belgian naturalist George Albert Boulenger in 1915. Boulenger was recognized as the pre-eminent expert of his time on African fishes, and published over 800 papers during his long career. Despite his expertise on African fish, we have steadily learned more about them and their relationship to other killies over the past 90 years since his work.
Of course, this means that they have gone through the wringer of the ichthyological name game, just as many others of our favorite fishes have done. They have been known variously as Aplocheilus annulatus and Pseudepiplatys annulatus before finally settling out to their current name of Epiplatys annulatus. I should mention that even today there is dispute as to whether Epiplatys or Pseudepiplatys is the correct generic name. Both camps have vociferous supporters.
I’m not taking sides by using Epiplatys in this article—I’m using it because that is what the American Killifish Association (AKA) uses. Many killie hobbyists use the abbreviation of ANN when discussing them. They have been known by at least three common names: the rocket killie, the banded panchax, and the clown killie. Currently, the latter seems to hold sway, at least in the United States. In case you are wondering, I should also mention that panchax is another name for the group of fish we call killifish that was used more frequently in the past than it is now.
A Resurgence in Interest
After the initial collection by a gentleman with the surname of Thomas in 1913, from which Boulenger described them, they were apparently not collected again for several decades. Their next appearance was in the hobby literature from Europe in the late 1950s and subsequently from the United States in the early 1960s; they’ve been available through killie hobbyists almost continuously ever since.
There is some disagreement among these hobbyists about the identity of various strains that are available, though the most colorful is definitely from the area around Monrovia, Liberia, and known as E. a. monroviae. Current imports in early 2008 have been coming in via Guinea, and are a bit less colorful than the monroviae specimens that I remember from a decade or so ago, which had much more red in the anal and ventral fins, though the Guinea fish are still very striking.
The overall shape is reminiscent of a miniature pike. They are torpedo shaped, with a roundish head and upturned mouth. The dorsal is placed far back on the body, with the first rays of the dorsal beginning just above the last rays of the anal fin. The caudal is spade shaped, and the central rays of an adult’s caudal fins are elongated. Those of the male can again be nearly as long as the rest of the rays of the caudal, while those of the female generally only extend a small bit beyond the rest of the caudal rays.
Bring in the Clowns
The name “clown killie” comes from their bright, almost garish coloration, reminiscent of the makeup of a clown. Coloration is variable, and it is argued by many killie hobbyists that the color variations represent different locations. Other hobbyists suggest just as strongly that the coloration is variable, even within broods from the same parent group. While I can attest to some variability within a brood, I can’t take a stand either way, as I have never collected them in the wild and can only go by what the various suppliers have told me as to their origin, as well as what can be found in the literature cited at the end of this article.
Males and Females
Both sexes are cream colored with four wide black bands beginning just behind the head. The dorsal fin in males can be cream colored, pale red, or even bright blue, this blue often containing some red. In females, the dorsal fin is clear. The caudal fin is pale to sky blue in males with the middle extended rays being bright red. In some variants, this red can be a pale orange color, while in others it can be almost yellow with bright red lines above and below. Some specimens have bright blue outlining the red. I have seen photos of specimens with bright yellow tips on the extensions, though I’ve never been lucky enough to see one in life.
Most females have a colorless caudal with only a faint red, yellow, or orange color for the length of their slightly extended rays. The anal fins of males can be blue, blue outlined in red, red outlined in blue, or even bright red, again depending on the variant. Those of females are usually clear to pale amber. It should be noted that I have read in several articles that the anal fins of females are always clear. From personal experience I can say that this is not necessarily true, even with the less-colorful Guinea fish I currently have in my tanks. The ventral fins of males are pale red, bright orange, bright red, or even nearly clear, with those of females being mostly clear. To finish off, there is a bright spot on the top of the head behind the eyes that is visible from above.
In the wild they are reputed to be uncommon, with individual fish found in very shallow water, sometimes less than an inch deep. This is usually in forest streams where the water is fairly warm (78°F), soft, and acidic. It is reported that the water where they are often collected is not moving, which would explain why they prefer gentle movement or none at all in the aquarium. Even in the aquarium, the adults do not school as many small fish do; each chooses its own place to hang out. Juvenile fish do seem to prefer company and often loosely school, or at least hang around together in a small area. It is not quite fitting of the classic definition of schooling, though.
Clown killies are tiny fish, with the larger males topping out at just over an inch and a half while females barely reach an inch. Their eggs are just about the smallest fish eggs I’ve ever seen. While I haven’t measured them myself, the literature gives them a size of less than one millimeter in diameter! That means you’d have to lay more than 25 of them side by side to make an inch. Comparing this to many other more-common fish eggs, they are about half the size. The fry are correspondingly small, which is what can make clown killies challenging fish to rear. We’ll look at this in depth a bit later.
Maintenance in the Aquarium
Many hobbyists keep clown killies in the popular planted micro and nano tanks, which are perfect homes for them. The only problem with these tanks is that the current from the filters is often strong, and since they share the tank with other species of fish, they don’t often reproduce successfully. But they can definitely be enjoyed in such a tank, where they bring bright and flashy colors to the often-overlooked top third of the tank.
Water parameters are important, especially if you want to get the fish to spawn. As I mentioned earlier, they are found in areas with relatively warm, soft, acidic water. Temperatures should be maintained between about 75° and 80°F, with a pH around 6.0, and a total hardness of about 50 ppm with little or nothing in the way of measurable carbonates. The easiest way to do this is to precondition the water in a small bucket or tank with a box filter loaded with waterlogged peat. Allow the water to circulate in the tank for a few days until it takes on a slight amber color. It will now be just about perfect for clown killies. Without filtration, I prefer to perform a 50-percent or larger water change on the tank, siphoning water from the bottom, every three days or so. This keeps pollutants from building up and keeps the clowns in top form.
Housing can also be a simple affair. Since they don’t really like a lot of movement in the water, filtration is optional. In fact, it’s actually best to avoid it. Give them a planted tank instead, with plenty of floating plants on the surface. Plants like water sprite Ceratopteris sp., water lettuce Pistia stratiotes, Riccia, Salvinia, red-root floater Phyllanthus fluitans, and frogbit Limnobium sp. provide a refuge for their eggs and the newly hatched fry, as well as a feeling of security for the adults. The roots of plants like water sprite, water lettuce, and red-root floater that hang down into the water are perfect sites for the clown killie’s eggs. A small amount of Java moss and a small amount of peat such as the quantity from one peat pellet (available from garden stores) can serve as covering for the bottom of the tank.
A long, low tank with a lot of surface area is preferable to a deeper tank, as they will only use the top 5 or 6 inches of water anyway. For a display tank you can use one designed for keeping reptiles. Many breeders simply use plastic sweater boxes or plastic shoeboxes. Whatever you decide to use, make sure that it has a secure top, as they are excellent jumpers.
Since there will be no filtration in the tank, water quality will completely rely upon proper feeding and water changes. While you could add scavengers like small snails or even small shrimp such as cherry shrimp Neocaridina sp. to the tank to help clean up missed food, these scavengers are not above eating the clown killie’s tiny eggs. Instead, just perform plenty of regular water changes with water of similar parameters to those of the water in their tank, as previously outlined.
Live Foods Required
Feeding is simple. In the wild, their feeding behaviors are much like those of the larger predators we know as pike—only with much smaller foods. They don’t chase down their food. Rather, they lie in wait just below the surface, waiting for flying insects to land on the water. The clown killies then quickly strike and gobble these unfortunate insects up.
In captivity, hobbyists can replicate this diet with live foods like fruit flies, the tiny confused flour beetles and their larvae (not to be mistaken for the larger red flour beetles, which are too large for clown killies to eat), and mosquito larvae. In addition, they will take newly hatched brine shrimp, nematodes (microworms, Walter worms, and vinegar eels), Moina, small Daphnia, copepods, small Grindal worms, and other tiny critters. Feed once or twice a day. Some individual fish will take frozen versions of these foods, but most will ignore anything that is non-living. They generally ignore flakes completely, so if you can’t provide live foods, it might be better to try your hand with some other fish first.
They can be kept as pairs but seem to do best and reproduce best in small groups. You can keep two or three pairs in a 2-gallon tank, or up to 6 or 8 pairs in a 10-gallon tank. The males will squabble a bit among themselves, but they will still find plenty of time for spawning.
If you keep them happy with plenty of live foods, floating plants for cover, and plenty of water changes, they will do what comes naturally and spawn. There are several methods used by different breeders and all work well. Read them, try the various methods, and decide for yourself what works best for you.
Some breeders like to use nylon spawning mops instead of floating plants, adding several of them to the tank, and E. annulatus will lay their eggs right in the mops. Some breeders will remove the mops each day and pick out the eggs by hand (they are tough and can withstand being handled). The eggs are then placed in a shallow dish on a layer of damp peat moss. This dish is either covered or placed in a bag, and the eggs are allowed to develop for about two weeks. At this point, all of the eggs are placed in a small container full of water. They quickly hatch, often within an hour or so of being added to water. The advantage here is that all fry are the same age and size, so feeding is easier.
Other breeders will allow the adults to spawn in the mops for several days and then remove the egg-laden mops to a separate tank to hatch. This method is a bit less intensive, but it results in fry that are of different sizes and in different stages of growth, so a mixture of foods must be used to make sure all of the fry get enough to eat.
I prefer to use the so-called “permanent method,” where I allow the parents to spawn among the roots of floating plants in the main tank. After a few weeks, fry will be noted hiding among the floating plants at the surface. Even with this system there are two methods for getting fry. The first is that the breeder can remove fry as they are seen swimming at the top among the leaves of the plants. This can be done with a spoon or a baster. They are then moved to another tank with similar water parameters and plants for rearing. The second method, which I prefer, is to keep the parents in one tank for about 10 to 12 days until I see a few fry near the surface, then move the adults to a second tank set up exactly as the first. This can be repeated as often as you have tank space. Using this method, you can easily expect 50 or so fry from a few pairs every two weeks.
Clown killies will spawn nearly every day if given conditions to their liking—along with members of the opposite sex, of course. As with most daily spawners, they don’t lay many eggs with each spawn, but this can be manipulated so they spawn when you want them to. Separate the sexes and condition the fish on extra feedings of live foods for several days before putting them together. They will begin spawning soon after being introduced to their opposites. Leave them in the spawning tank for a few days, feeding them all the while. Many breeders like to add a large amount of Daphnia to the spawning tank. The adult fish will eat the younger Daphnia, and the adult Daphnia will consume bacteria and other small critters in the water column until they themselves are eaten. The Daphnia do not harm the eggs or even newly hatched fry.
Feeding the Fry
Newly hatched E. annulatus are very tiny and need the smallest of live foods for the first few days. Green water (free-floating green algae cultured so that it is so dense the water actually turns green) is an excellent first food. This can be supplemented with infusoria. They should be continuously surrounded by food either dripped in or poured into the rearing tank. They will also graze upon the microscopic life that lives on the plants, but there won’t be enough of it to rely upon as the only source of food unless there are a lot of plants and very few fry.
Several Days After Hatching
After about three or four days, they will have grown large enough to take smaller species of Paramecium and young nematodes. Feed these foods at least two to three times a day or more if possible. These new foods should be mixed in with the smaller foods for a day or two until all of the fry are able to feed upon the new foods.
Vinegar eels work best, as they stay near the surface where the young killies will be hunting. In a pinch, you could also use microworms or Walter worms, but remember that these will slowly sink out of reach of the young killies and eventually die. Therefore, the bottom of the tank will need to be siphoned every couple of days to prevent fouling by the dead worms.
One Week Later
After a week or so, the fry will be large enough to take newly hatched brine shrimp, of the smaller San Francisco subspecies. Again, the new food should be mixed with the old food for a few days until you’re sure that all of the fry are taking the new food. These should be fed at least twice a day.
All along, I continue to add some sort of nematodes at each feeding, in addition to whatever else I’m feeding. From this point on, growth will be slow but steady, and after two weeks, they can take newly hatched Utah brine shrimp and other foods similar to what you are feeding the adults. While they will reach sexual maturity at about six to eight weeks of age and may start breeding soon thereafter, they don’t reach full size for about four to five months.
What More Could You Want?
With their bright colors, clown killies are always in demand and make excellent additions to a small-fish community tank. Given proper conditions and plenty of live foods, they can also be spawned and raised by the hobbyist willing to give them the extra attention they need. Color, challenge, popularity, and a size that allows breeding in a shoebox—what more could a hobbyist ask for in a fish?
Hellweg, Michael. 2008. Culturing Live Foods. T.F.H. Publications. Neptune City, NJ.
Scheel, Jorgen. 1968. Rivulins of the Old World. T.F.H. Publications. Jersey City, NJ.
Scheel, Jorgen J. 1990. Atlas of Killifishes of the Old World. T.F.H. Publications. Neptune City, NJ.
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