LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG
Discover the fish you can grow at home, just like buying seeds...
Welcome to the hardest pitch of my life. Imagine I had some striking little bean-sized fish, heaving with all the reds and blues of a can of Pepsi. Utterly beautiful fish. £15 and upwards for a male and female pair. Then I told you that whatever tank you set up for them was probably wrong, that your community tank wasn’t going to work with the aggression of the feisty males.
Then, to really crush the deal, I drop a bombshell. They might only live a few months. Not even a whole year. Worse, they’ve been in my shop for two months. And they were three months old when I bought them.
And that, good reader, is why you don’t see many adult Nothobranchius killifish on sale.
Nothobranchius keeping isn’t the usual ‘paint by numbers’ approach we all employ. It’s a niche, with its own lifestyle. It’s the hobby at its most immersive — trainspotting for aquarists, with daily tinkering and written records. It’s punctuated by long pauses, and heisting domestic fittings like the airing cupboard, where eggs might be stored. It involves piles of Tupperware, tiny worms, and the trade of genetic material by post. And it is marked with the numerous highs of spawning.
If you want a ‘sit back and relax’ tank, then they are not for you. If you’re the kind of aquarist who relishes a project, and have the grit to see things through, then these will definitely appeal.
I invite you to take the plunge with me. The outlay is cheap enough, and for the best part you’ll be improvising equipment from around the house. And besides, which other fish are you ever going to grow from a bag of posted ‘seeds’?
What are killifish?
Killifish, or ‘killies’ as they are known in the circuit, are egg laying fish from the Cyprinodontiform order. If you’re in good company (or if you’re a part of the fishkeeping illuminati), you’ll hear the cyprinodontiformes sometimes called toothcarps. That’s pretty misleading as there’s nothing carpy about them, but it’s a an old name that lingers on. You can split the toothcarps down the middle, into the livebearing toothcarps — better known as the livebearing poecilids like Guppies, Mollies, Swordtails and so on — and the egglaying toothcarps — the killies and pupfish.
Though killies can be found over several continents, the Nothobranchiidae we are interested in here restricts itself to Africa. The family houses 11 different genera: Aphyosemion, Callopanchax, Epiplatys, Episemion, Fenerbahce, Foerschichthys, Fundulopanchax, Nimbapanchax, Pronothobranchius, Scriptaphyosemion, and the genus I’m focussing on today — Nothobranchius.
Nothobranchius are what we term annual fish, which is to say that their life cycle of birth, growth, fight, love, mate and die, all happens inside of one year.
Why such short lives?
A short life can indicate a hostile environment. That’s not to say that rough habitats always lead to early deaths. Some of the longest living fish — the lungfish of the genus Protopterus — share their habitats with Nothobranchius; temporary, muddy African pools. These can be anything from an enlarged, seasonal puddle to wetlands that flood and recede each year. When conditions turn bad, a lungfish endures a forced, underground cryogenic suspension for long spells. The lives of these true
In dry season when the sun beats down to carry water away, there’s nothing left to do but dry out on the scorching earth.
Mummies of Africa can measure into tens of decades. Adult Nothobranchius cannot go to ground in the same way. They are small, and dry out easily. They lack the physical adaptations that lungfish have evolved.
You don’t need an advanced understanding of Africa to know that in many areas the temperature is high, and the rainfall low. As an example, one of the most popular Nothos, the Bluefin notho, Nothobranchius
rachovii, comes from Mozambique, a country with a set dry season from April to September. During a cyclone-rich wet season, food is bounteous, and life fast-paced. The wet season isn’t a wet season as you might imagine from a rainforest region. In the Amazon, up to 6m of rain might fall in a year. In the UK, we hover around 88cm. Mozambique — a typically ‘Notho’ country — may have just 50cm some years. If you watch the collection of wild
Nothobranchius, you’ll see folks clearing out pools the size of upper-end UK garden ponds.
Even when it’s wet, life isn’t plain sailing for Nothos. Out of necessity, they live in regions riddled with mosquitos — a staple food source for these voracious, protein hungry little hunters. The problem with mosquitos in a country heaving with malaria is self-evident, and though in a perfect world there’d be natural controls to reduce numbers, the reality is that many problem ponds are sprayed with harsh pesticides. Alas, pesticides don’t distinguish between pest and pet.
Even pesticides don’t guarantee death in the same way that complete dehydration does, and in dry season when the sun beats down to carry water away, the Nothos’ universe recedes daily, until there’s nothing left to do but dry out on the scorching earth.
But even though the Nothos cannot survive their own impermanent homes, they can, at least produce resilient eggs. In this respect, they are world class parents. As the dry season looms, they spawn, a final act of defiance to a doomed existence, and their eggs remain in a state of diapause — inactive dormancy, with the young trapped in time.
Trapped, that is, until the rains return, signifying a new season of food and breeding. As the water stirs plant and insect life to re-emerge, the young fish hatch out, ready to exploit the temporary world around them. Once hatched, they can mature rapidly.
That they are so uncommon in the hobby reflects a wider shift in the fishkeeping demographic. With rare exceptions, at a hobbyist level fishkeeping has become less about sustainability, and more about consumerism. While aquarists in some niches make up an infrastructure of breeding and conservation — certain livebearer and catfish clubs have this at their core — for the casual aquarist the emphasis is often on desirable, affordable fish, and that’s what the retailers cater to.
That means killies like Nothobranchius are relegated to the committed, curious, or even outright obsessed fringes of fishkeeping. Spawnaholics love them, but lament at how hard it is to shift the young along. In defence of retailers, the market for killies is currently small, and any stock is a gamble. The killifish market rests mainly in the hands of hobbyists, and in order to perpetuate the hobby, they rely on the killifish’s unique spawning strategy.
Eggs by post
Many of us have spawned livebearers. Some of us have either accidentally or intentionally spawned egglayers. Very few of us have received eggs by post and hatched them at home, having never met the parents. But that’s how the killifish game is played.
Hatching Nothobranchius is a skill, but not an overly taxing one. The first thing you need to do is source the things, and that stage alone can be make or break.
There are plenty of suppliers of eggs online, but plenty of budding rearers have been caught out by substandard eggs that fail to hatch. Sellers who guarantee their eggs are rare, but always preferable to those who don’t, and as with so much in life, you get what you pay for. Quality eggs cost money, and quality, guaranteed eggs are more expensive again, but they are still cheap compared to buying pairs of adult fish. 30 Nothobranchius rachovii eggs can start around £5 (an adult pair will cost you £15 or more), while rarer species start around £15 for the 30-50 egg mark.
The next thing to know is that 30 eggs won’t ensure 30 fish. Out of a 30 batch, you
might get 20 hatch on a good week, and out of those you’ll get less than ten fish reaching adulthood. Still, even on those maths, if just five make it through, that’s £1 a head for some of the brightest fish in the business.
When buying, you might see mention of ‘F1’, ‘F2’, or ‘F3’ fish, and so on numerically. These will indicate how many generations down the line the seller has kept and bred the fish for. F1 fish are those directly descended from a pair of wild fish. F2 fish, will be the offspring of the F1 fish, and so on. Dedicated killie breeders often have fish of several generations age, but this is rarely a cause for concern, as they’re pretty hot on spawning — they’re invested in their bloodlines, and a bad reputation in a small industry is enough to see the bad breeders off. Sometimes.
What will you need?
Apart from the actual eggs, the next thing you’ll need is food. Liquifry will get you off to a start, sure, but live foods are best for these little hunters. Out of their eggs they’ll take pretty large foods, so you’ll want to get some Artemia cultures (brine shrimp) in place, along with some tiny worms. Banana worms are a good choice, and as long as you can handle a bit of a vinegary smell, you won’t mind tubs of them around the place.
There are a couple of other sundries you want for successful hatching. Tupperware, for one. Or old ice cream tubs. Yoghurt pots and a small plastic bowl. Some polystyrene. Ask a retailer if you can have some of the small polystyrene boxes they receive their frozen foods in. Also, some aquarium peat, aquarium salt and a length of airline (or big pipette) will be a help. Java moss will be required. Oh, and a magnifying glass.
When your eggs arrive, they’ll be in a small bag of peat. You’ll hopefully also have instructions about how to hatch them. If not, you’ll need to make a call and find out exactly how long the eggs have been dry for. Nothos vary in hatch time, but some can be ready from around the 8–12-week mark, giving you plenty of leeway to set up a little rearing tank of around 45 x 25 x 25cm, with a small air-driven filter and a heater.
Until they’re ready to emerge — revealed by the presence of tiny eyes in the slowly developing eggs — you want to keep them somewhere dark, at a stable temperature. In a warm household, the inside of a polystyrene box in the top of a wardrobe may do the job. In an old, poorly insulated or chilly house, the bottom of the airing cupboard will be a better, stable option. Either way, remember to air the peat bags of eggs every few weeks (mouldy, or too dry peat will damage them). Keep checking the eggs with a magnifying glass, and once you see two little beady black eyes peering at you from them, they’re ready to go.
At this point, you want your ice cream tub, or largest Tupperware pot. Fill it with dechlorinated water, or water from a mature aquarium. Ideally you want it soft and slightly acid, but Nothos are pretty resilient. Personally, I’d float that tub in the aquarium the fry are destined to go into, but it’s not essential if you can keep the temperature stable. Controlled temperature fish houses have the advantage here.
In the large tub, place the yoghurt pots or small Tupperware, and the plastic bowl, so that they are in but not under the water. In the bowl, spread out your peat and eggs — the technical term for this is ‘wetting ’. It’s essential not to separate the eggs and the peat — they won’t hatch without it. In the individual pots, add a clump of Java moss.
Hatching will start after an hour or so, but give them a few hours before moving them. They should be free swimming at least. Use the large pipette (or baster, or large eyedropper) to lift the fish out and separate them between the different pots. Personally, I prefer to use a long length of airline (it’s wider than a pipette) and a practised suction technique with my mouth to lift the fish out, but there are health and hygiene risks associated with this.
The separation of the fry evenly between tubs is to reduce the risk of cross infection in a disease outbreak. Velvet is particularly pernicious with Notho fry, and spawning
veterans usually add a little aquarium salt (around 3g per litre of water will suffice) to reduce the risk.
Growing on the fry
Feeding in the earliest stages can be assisted with a little Liquifry if you haven’t quite got your cultures ready, but by this stage you really want bubbling tubes of brine shrimp, and tubs writhing with microworms. The trick is not to overfeed. Starving Nothos is tricky, poisoning them is easy. Couple that with the fact that you want to avoid large water changes — young Nothos hate them — and you can see why food management is essential. If you’re doing water changes, remember to keep adding your salt. Velvet disease can strike out of nowhere.
After a couple of weeks in their pots, move your fry into the tub as a group, along with more Java moss, freeing up a few pots for the next potential hatch. Don’t mix fish from different stages together. Big Nothos are predatory and will nail their tiny siblings.
A couple of weeks after that, it’s into the tank proper, where air-powered foam filters, Java moss, peat and a nice, peaty substrate should be waiting. From here, you can move along to increasingly large foods — Cyclops, then small Daphnia, and eventually Tubifex and bloodworm. Now just sit back, watch ‘em grow, and prepare for an explosion of colour. And there we have it. Your very first home-grown fish.
At this point, you may be wondering how to breed them yourself. It’s easy enough, but I’m all out of space here. That said, you’ll likely be itching to spawn more than Nothobranchius, so I strongly recommend you ask your local retailer for a book on killifish breeding. If they don’t have one, take a trip to your local library and see what they can get for you. Or you could just Google it, but where’s the fun in that?
Useful contacts British Killifish Association (BKA) Membership costs: UK £20, Europe £27, overseas £37, online £10. Visit www.bka.webeden.co.uk or contact Trevor Wood, 9 Dalton Green Lane, Huddersfied, West Yorkshire, HD5 9YD. Suppliers of Notho and other killifish eggs: > Peter Brown, 18 Paragon Close, Cheadle, Staffordshire, ST10 1JD. Tel. 01538 755292; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Species include N. elongatus F2, N. flammicomantis FTZ 10-21, N. foerschi, N. guentheri Blue form, N. guentheri ‘Zanzibar’ and N. korthausae Red. > Charles Zammit, 12 St Georges Street, Birzebbuga BBG 1632, Malta. Email: carmzammit@ gmail.com. Species include N. guentheri aquarium strain, N. guentheri Red ‘Zanzibar’, N. korthausae ‘Mafia’ and N. korthausae Red.
One-day-old Notho fry.
Two colour forms of Nothobranchius eggersi —a ‘Utete’ (top) and ‘Bagamoyo’.
Young Nothobranchius eggersi fry.
A spawning pair of Bluefin Nothos.
The Bluefin notho, Nothobranchius rachovii, is the species you’re most likely to find on sale.
Nothobranchius foerschi is one of the longer lived species, with a lifespan of up to a couple of years.