Charming and colourful, neither of the Ram cichlids grow too big, are inexpensive to buy and fun to breed. But of the two species available, one is much easier to keep than the other…
Charming and colourful, neither of the Ram cichlids grow too big, are inexpensive to buy and fun to breed. But one is much easier to keep than the other…
If you have spent any time in an aquatic store, you’re sure to have come across Ram cichlids. These brightly coloured dwarf cichlids have become a staple in many shops.
A sure incentive to the keeping of these charming cichlids are their many good points, such as ease of keeping and breeding, as well as their optimal size — not too big, not too small, just right for our relatively small tanks — and in addition they are also very colourful. What’s more, there are many colour forms in the trade, as well long-finned varieties. On account of all this,
Mikrogeophagus are likely to find their way, sooner or later, into the tank of almost every hobbyist.
These enchanting cichlids inhabit warm waters of South America; they can be found in Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia or Brazil, where they live in shallow, sandy-bottomed waters streams, small lakes and oxbow lakes.
They thrive in water that is soft and slightly acidic, with a temperature of 26–28°C, although some people keep them in water that is more alkaline and moderately hard. I use RO water and filter it through peat, but I have wild-caught fish, so obviously, I wish to provide the best living conditions, as close as I can get to those they had in nature. With this in mind I achieve the following values with my own fish: GH 5 and 6.5ph — a happy medium at which both species are comfortable. M.
altispinosus does not need its water as soft and acidic as M. ramirezi for in its natural environment it was found in water at 7–7.6ph, and carbonate hardness below 100mg/l.
These fish do best in a biotope-style aquarium. As the adults of either species do not exceed 4in/10cm, a tank with a footprint of 60cm x 40cm wide, holding about 70 l, will suffice for an adult mated pair of these cichlids. It is advisable to cover the bottom with fine sand, in which the fish readily dig.
To add some variety, hiding places in the form of lignites, wood, flat stones or Ketapang (Catappa) leaves could be provided. For plants, Indian fern, Java fern, Amazon sword plants, or a clump
of Java moss (which is very helpful when it comes to reproduction) are all good choices. While arranging the tank, however, it is important not to clutter it; the fish need some space to swim about freely.
Don’t go overboard on lighting — the tank should not be too brightly lit. We want to emphasise the colours of these beautiful fish instead of washing them out, so some shaded areas will be useful. I use Floating water ferns or Water lettuce, Pistia
stratiotes — the latter is also very helpful in removing metabolites like nitrate, which these fish do not tolerate.
Whichever of the two species you are intending to keep, I would recommend the purchase of a group of 6–8 young fish, as this is the best way to get one or more pairs, which should emerge after a few weeks. At this point I remove the spare fish and give them to my aquarist friends. They get new genetic material which helps them to avoid inbreeding, and I have more room for the pairs.
Companion fish could include bottom dwellers such as Corydoras, other catfish, or some characins for the water column — ensure they are species that do well in similar water conditions — soft and acidic.
What we need to bear in mind is the importance of excellent biological filtration, good oxygenation and weekly water changes combined with vacuuming the bottom of the tank. Any neglect on our part will negatively affect our fishes’ health. Elevated metabolite values will cause their colours to fade and may even lead to bacterial infections, so hygienic conditions in the aquarium are essential.
It is also important not to overfeed them, for they are voracious. The golden rule: feed in small amounts and once a week fast your fish for a day. I give them granulated Discus food, Spirulina and frozen foods, glassworms and black mosquito larvae. Fed this way, they grow well and colour up nicely without becoming fat (which leads to problems with reproduction) and most importantly — spawn readily.
Mikrogeophagus altispinosus may not be as popular as its close cousin, M.
ramirezi, but it is much easier to keep and breed. It does well across a range of water chemistries from 6.5–7.5ph and slightly soft
to moderately hard water, so makes a better choice for the average community aquarium and is much more suitable for less experienced fishkeepers.
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi will not thrive in hard, alkaline conditions — and they certainly won’t breed. Please don’t buy these cichlids unless you can provide the water to suit them. They also prefer warmer water than the average community fish.
After many years of cross-breeding and selection, M. ramirezi is much more intensely coloured than the fish in the wild, an effect which is achieved by plying them with hormones. Apart from the standard variety, the ‘German blue ram’, there are other colour forms, including white (an albino fish, devoid of the pigment melanin) and gold, as well as long-finned fish. These varieties can have fertility and health problems. Inbreeding leads to various hereditary defects, such as body deformities. Many ramirezi cichlids are bred at fish farms in Asia. At professional hatcheries the young are often reared without the parents’ participation, and the new generations are not able to care for their young properly — as a result of such rearing practices the fish lose their maternal instinct.
If you want to keep ramirezi, I would advise you to buy the standard varieties, preferably from a reliable source — a breeder who cares about his genetic material (avoiding inbreeding), and who raises them naturally with the participation of the parents. This way we can get a taste of the fascinating care of these colourful cichlids, which for so many of us have been (or will be) the introduction to the whole vast cichlid family.
Breeding the Ram cichlid
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi is the species most often found in shops. The male is bigger and more brightly coloured than the
female, and the first rays of his dorsal fin are strongly elongated, while his partner has a rounder belly.
Once we have a pair, everything should go like clockwork. Ideally the fish should be about six months old; by which time they are fully mature and ready to breed. They rarely eat their eggs and care diligently for their offspring.
I breed mine in my community tank because I’m not interested in getting a large number of young — I prefer just to observe their reproduction and brood care. So I just secure the filter intake (the pipe that draws water into the canister filter) with a sponge, to ensure it doesn’t pull in the eggs or fry.
If you want a lot of offspring, then it’s best to use a breeding tank. Temperature should be 29°C, hardness below 6°H, and ph 5.5–6 — it’s better to use RO water here.
The pair will search for a place to lay the eggs, which they will clean industriously with their mouths, and then the eggs will be laid. The eggs are sensitive to water-borne particles and too much light, so I put a large, new sponge on the filter intake and darken the tank. The adult fish care for the eggs, with energetic movements of their pectoral fins providing them with fresh water and therefore oxygen.
After about 48 hours the larvae hatch, usually a few hundred in number, and they are then typically moved to a pre-dug pit in the sand. Furthermore, the pair dig a lot of holes in the sand (this is why it is crucial for reproduction), in which they will ‘store’ the young, at night for instance. After a week, the yolk sac is usually fully resorbed, and you might need to start feeding the fry.
Raising the youngsters
In a mature, overgrown tank the next generation will always find something to eat, but out of a few hundred little fish only a handful — the strongest — will survive. So, if you want to rear more fry, you will need to feed them, at first with food such as rotifiers (or ready-made fluid fry foods), and then moving on slowly to newly hatched Artemia nauplii and microworms. Some people also give them hard-boiled egg yolk dissolved in water (be careful as it pollutes the water a lot). It is best to use a long pipette to squirt the food directly into the cloud of fry; if you don’t have a pipette, use a syringe with a relatively rigid tubing attached to it, so that you can aim accurately into the group of little fish. The food should be given in small portions a few times a day — the bellies of the young fish must be full all the time.
Remember to vacuum the bottom of the tank several times a day, removing the food remains. This is essential as neglecting hygiene can literally decimate the fry, and they will be disappearing rapidly. It is also advisable to rinse the sponge on the filter intake daily. After a month, on average, the young reach a length of 1 cm, and their care will no longer be as involved.
Breeding the Bolivian ram
The reproduction of M. altispinosus is similar to that of its cousin; interestingly, in soft water they are more fertile. Once we have a mated pair (the males are larger and more slender), the fish will clean a spawning site with their mouths and will also dig pits in the bottom. A few hundred eggs are laid and then the parents will take turns on duty, one fanning the egg deposit, the other protecting the territory. After about 48 hours, depending on the temperature , the larvae hatch and are delicately transferred by the mother in her mouth to pre-dug pits.
They are ready to feed after a few days, and can be fed as for M. ramirezi. They reach around 1cm in length after about a month.
The Bolivian ram is by far the easier of the two species to keep and breed.
Bolivian ram, Mikrogeophagus altispinosus.
Ram cichlid, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi.
A female Ram guards her offspring.
At a month old, the young Rams are usually around 1cm in length.