Jeremy Gay revisited a cichlid he had not kept in over ten years, and found that even when breeding, they weren’t the hammer-wielding gods of thunder from who they take their name.
“In Norse mythology, Thor (/θɔːr/; from Old Norse Þórr) is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing and fertility.” wikipedia
My reacquaintance with these Central American cichlids happened by chance, when our Irish distributor, Clearly Aquatics, brought in some fish to my place of work. A magical moment happened that morning when we snapped open the bucket lid to reveal a pair of “Ellioti”, subtly coloured central american cousins of the Firemouth cichlid. In a second my love for cichlids was rekindled.
I looked down on to the pair, the male about 11cm in length from nose to end of tail and the female quite a bit smaller at 7.5cm. We acclimated them into a 60x45x45cm holding tank, part of a commercial tank racking system and observed them. They had the amber underside, red bellies and covering of light blue spangles I remembered so well from my days as a cichlid dealer, complete with trailing dorsal and anal fin extensions edged in red.
Two thirds down the body was the characteristic black blotch, the gill area was painted red underneath with the iridescent blue edged black blotches – the second pair of “eyes” the fish use to scare off predators and each other. More about them later. The real eyes were sat high on the head, blue and green and sparkling, leading to a longish snout. All those colours overlaid a grey body, with darker grey vertical bands which could be switched on in a second, according to mood.
“They’re a breeding pair,” I was told. There was three of them but the pair killed the spare female” Welcome back to world of Central Americans, I thought to myself, one of wife beating, philandering and near constant fry production. I fully expected this pair to fall out with fatal consequences so we readied the tank next to it and kept an eye on them over the next few days.
Depending on species, Central American cichlids can break their pair bond over a number of factors. An over-amorous male and unripe female can mean a horrific beating for her, where by, anthropomorphically speaking, the male says to the female “ if you’re not going to put out you can do one, and I’ll find someone else who does want to spawn with me. (but with a mexican accent,)” Only the female can’t escape the confines of the aquarium and may be beaten or killed.
Some cichlids split after they spawn too, like the T-bar sajica cichlids, one of the species I bred in my youth. Once fry are up and swimming the male chases off the female, preferring to tend to and protect them alone. Again this has disastrous consequences if there is no escape for the female, and you don’t remove her. So I was ready for these gods of thunder and lightning to throw everything they had in the cichlid book at me, but it never came…
“They’ve spawned,” I was told, within about a week of them arriving at their new temporary home. The fry were already up and swimming and the parents had both been moved to the next tank.
“Noone is here to watch them for the next few days so we’ve moved the parents.” Not something I’d recommend, I thought, as by their very nature Central American cichlids actively participate in raising the fry, something which is both great to watch and they do the hard work for you. Over the next few days the fry were fed on ground-up tropical flake, algae tablets and I fully expected that the fry would die off with no direction from parents, unsuitable food and that the adult pair would fall out over the disaster that was losing all their fry. Again, nothing. Peace, harmony and remarkably, about two hundred growing fry. Most un cichlid-like.
Water was warm at about 28C, pH and kH very low, and the water very soft and acidic.
My one metre tank got freed up and home and I set up what was going to be a South American black water biotope. At both my work and home the water is incredibly soft, with zero KH straight out of the tap, conditions which make even Apistogramma very hardy and recommended by some around here as suitable first fish! Decor was simply silver sand and two large pieces of spindly wood. It looked South American alright, and I stuck to my guns of not adding plants as they don’t grow in blackwater acid pools in the wild. A quick walk around the block and I collected half a carrier bag full of alder cones off the pavements, so in they went too, turning the water from amber, to tea with no milk, to almost reddish, over the next few days. With low pH and no KH I fully expected the water conditions to turn to something resembling Coca Cola or vinegar, which it probably did, but with no fish in there I didn’t test, and I knew the black waters of the famous Rio Negro in Amazonas, Brazil were similar if not even more acid.
I frequented my local stores over the next few days and weeks hunting for that special pair of soft water south americans. Apistogramma baenschi maybe, Biotodoma cupido or maybe Biotoceus? Despite getting a £20 voucher for my birthday I couldn’t decide.
Back at work I entered the fish room, did some feeding and had a sly ten minute observation bout at the same time. That is a good pair I thought as I viewed the Ellioti. They hadn’t fought, it’s unusual to see a decent sized pair and they’d fit in my one metre tank. It was bigger than their 60cm home afterall. On a whim I negotiated my taking them off their owners and took them home – a Central American cichlid pair for a South American blackwater biotope. “Take them, I was told, I’ve got tanks full of their offspring in the shop.”
Obsessive compulsive checks
I got them home and added them to the previously fishless one metre tank. Despite the soft water the pair looked instantly appreciative of their new larger home, their colours intensified by the dark staining in the water and their eyes and blue spots becoming even more irridescent in the shafts of light. Within ten minutes of introduction they were sifting the soft sand, driving their snouts into the thick substrate like dabbling ducks before swimming up, chewing and eventually spitting the sand out across the water column. Thorichthys need sand I thought to myself, almost as obligate as the Geophagus and Satanoperca cichlids from further south. Deprive a sand sifting cichlid of what it does naturally and you’re off my friends list, so no bare tanks for these diggers.
So Central American cichlid pair, check, male and female, check, Central American themed tank, uncheck, Central American water conditions, uncheck. What was the biotope, I thought to myself. Fast flowing, shallow rocky river tinged blue from the high mineral content, and which part of Central America was I trying to replicate? My OCD kicked in as I frantically put together a shopping list of props and data in order to replicate a much more realistic habitat for my prize pair.
Question one. Are they even Thorichthys ellioti, T.aureus or even dreaded hybrids? I dealt in lots of Thorichthys back in the day but am not too proud to admit I’m a little rusty, so I headed over to Facebook where I’m friends with Central American cichlid expert Lee Nuttall and posed the question.
“Hi Jeremy, first, it is the opinion that ellioti is regarded as a junior synonym, therefore we should describe them as Thorichthys maculipinnis,” Lee told me. Ten years is a long time in cichlid taxonomy! So erase ellioti from fishy memory banks and replace with T.maculipinnis. Check.
“Syntopic cichlid species include: Paraneetroplus nebuliferus, Rocio octofasciata, Trichromis salvini and Vieja fenestrata depending on the biotope. As an example the Rio La Antigüa near Puente Nacional, you would most only find T. maculipinnis and V. fenestrata.”
“The underwater environment will be rocks, sand / gravel river bed with wood, branches and leaf litter. No plants only marginal vegetation.”
“Separating both species can be a little tricky in descriptive terms and almost impossible with young fish unless you can 100% verify the provenance. T. aureus are very hard to source in the UK, with many being imported from Germany or the USA. Most so-called aureus at retail level would very likely be T. maculipinnis or perhaps a mix, not unheard of?”
Lee went on to take me to a link to a discussion on the Cichlid Room Companion forum with a handful of people who have collected specimens in the wild. For more in-depth info give the site a visit. I finished the messaging session with some photos I sent to Lee, who confirmed that my pair were in fact T.maculipinnis, and in the Otapa River they mixed with green swordtails, Xiphophorus hellerii. Biotope sorted!
No big accolade in breeding
With no changes to decor, temperature or water chemistry my pair of T.maculipinnis spawned within two days of being added to my home tank. Despite this I take none of the credit as I got them as a breeding pair and that’s what breeding pairs do. They obviously weren’t fussy about water parameters either.
The female instigated the spawning, choosing and cleaning a site on a piece of wood in the middle of the tank, corralling the male over with lots of shimmying, flank nudging, the odd bite on the flank, before dropping her ovipositor and doing the characteristic twitching form of cichlid communication. She laid between 100 and 200 eggs, a small clutch I thought, and if numbers are altered by the soft water, I don’t know. Overall she was only about half the size of the male too, although this is common in Central American cichlids and I predict that they were still probably the same age. Egg production in the female will reroute all those important proteins towards spawn and away from growth. She gets more hyperactive too with eggs and fry.
The male has no such egg production burden so goes on to grow as he should, which also gives him the size advantage when fighting off would-be egg/fry predators or rival males keen on stealing his female.
Constant prodding by the female has taken its toll on the male however, as his flanks do look worn and marked from perhaps half a dozen or more previous spawns. Apart from that the pair remained well bonded and non-aggressive towards each other throughout spawning and raising fry.
The pair laid the eggs on a Sunday and they took a full week to develop into larvae. Something I love about substrate spawning cichlids is when they do the classic switcha-roo, which my partner fell for hook, line and sinker when I was at work. “The eggs have gone” read the text. Don’t worry, they’ve hatched and they’ve moved the fry,” I replied. I returned home to find the egg site bare, no sign of eggs or larvae but the pair still looking very hormonally charged. On a parallel with other members of the animal kingdom my clever cichlids had moved the larvae from the original site to one of about twenty pits they had dug in and around the substrate, usually walled on one or more sides by wood or rocks. Like a ground nesting bird on Springwatch the pair then conducted some of my favourite behaviour and led me away from where the actual nest was as I peered into the tank. The male drew me to a far corner and did what he could to distract me, while the female made fleeting protective drive-bys of both me and the far away nest. A sideways glance through the tank revealed the nest of larvae, well hidden, safe and well, and expertly tended by the female.
The tank was filtered by a gutsy external power filter, so I fitted a fine sponge filter to prevent fry being sucked into it when they became free swimming. This works twofold as open sponges also make great grazing sites for fry.
I can’t recommend these fish enough for those who love to observe substrate spawning cichlid behaviour. As the fry became free swimming over the next few days the parents delighted with the full suite of parental fry raising tricks including chasing stragglers, taking them into their mouths and spitting them back into the nest, taking large food particles like flakes or granules, mincing them up in their mouths and then spitting them out, perfectly re-sized for hungry little mouths, along with regularly sifting, digging and drilling in the substrate to lift clouds of particles on which the fry would feed.Throughout feeding batches of fry both at work and home not a single fry food was used at any point. The parents did it all with the adult foods I offered.
Great also to see was the protective stance of the pair. Classic pose was cloud of fry on substrate with male and female hovering six inches above, tail to tail at opposite sides of the clock face to provide 360 degree observation. As the fry moved the parents would move with them, again with the male choosing the odd diversion tactic when my face got too close to the glass. Lovely also to see was the “tap-out” when either parent went off to feed. The female would hunker down over the fry and up her activity and presence while the male swam off to conduct a full perimeter check of the tank’s borders. When back they would give each other a virtual pectoral “high five” before the male stopping with the fry and the female swimming off to feed for herself and get a moment’s peace, being a fish again.
Back to the biotope
Despite lots of great feedback on the tannin stained water on social media I decided I couldn’t cope with the South/Central American biotope any more so with the fry 14 days post hatch I set about doing something about it. First to go were the Alder cones, followed by their rich tannins which I removed over several days with activated carbon in the filter. Next in were limestone rocks, which had the added benefit of buffering what little pH and hardness I had in the water and hopefully stopped it from descending into full on battery acid, which could have happened from the frequent feeding. With clearer water, rocks and wood, with the odd sprinkle of gravel over the sand I was now a lot happier that the tank was looking more Mexican than Amazonian, in my mind anyway.
Parents were completely undeterred by the move around and took full advantage of the new rocky grazing sites and hideaways for the fry. The detritus I stirred up while re-scaping meant more natural fry food too.
Next I pushed the biotope one step further by chancing upon some wild type green swordtails. One male and one gravid female were added to the tank which caused no friction as the swordtails stayed top and the parents and fry of the maculipinnis stayed middle and bottom. Suitable dither fish I thought too. As the fry grew and aged they became more spread out across the tank which did make the parents make synchronised thrusts up towards the swordtail pair defensively. They didn’t touch them but my female swordtail was about to drop fry and there was no surface cover so I moved them out of the tank. To catch them I had to remove more wood, which then gave me the opportunity to add even more aged looking limestone. It was beginning to look more Like Lake Tanganyika in there than the Rio Otapa but again the pair and their offspring looked fine with yet another change around.
One interesting observation is what happened when I removed the swordtails. With their dither targets gone I became a genuine threat to the pair for the first time and they rewarded me with a joint display of gill flaring and formation toing and froing towards the front of the tank. For the first time I saw Thor’s fish doing their thing, doubling their frontal presence with flared gills revealing scarlet coloured bellows and the dramatic eye spots on the gill covers.
George Farmer kindly offered to photograph the fish and gave it one last impromptu re-scape while he was at it. The last piece of wood went, a bit more rock went in and it turned more Iwagumi nature aquarium than water worn river. George mentioned lots of ‘scaping words like “strata” and “tension” while doing the refit. There was tension alright, tension that my mate had his arms in my tank and did a rescape on a layout I was personally happy with, but it’s all part of the fun and there is no right and wrong when it comes to personal taste. I’ll redo one of his for a laugh one day!
The circle of life
Four weeks post hatch and the parents began to take less time with the fry and more time with each other. Colouration intensified, sparring, biting and shimmying, and my happily married pair were at it again, cleaning a rock this time and readying for spawning again. By leaving the fry with the parents it tends to slow them down from spawning again, which I did, but there does come a point where the parents will spawn again regardless and set about eliminating the tank of what will then be regarded as competition, and a very real threat to their delicate new eggs and fry. This is in their DNA, as older fry would naturally disperse.
A rewarding experience
The Thorichthys maculipinnis delivered on every level. Beautiful, easy to keep, easy to breed, and they demonstrated fascinating cichlid behaviour without the sometimes unbearable aggression levels and killing sprees. I highly recommend them for Mexican biotopes or simple breeding projects. Even as a first foray into Central American cichlids.