Mikro habi­tats

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…

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Welcome - WORDS AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: RADEK BEDNARCZUK

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.

Which Ram?

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.

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