LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG

Dis­cover the fish you can grow at home, just like buy­ing seeds...

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Welcome - WORDS: NATHAN HILL

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.

Hatch­ing out

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: pe­tew­brown@bt­in­ter­net.com. 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.

The Bluefin notho, Notho­branchius rachovii, is the species you’re most likely to find on sale.

A spawn­ing pair of Bluefin Nothos.

Notho­branchius furz­eri.

One-day-old Notho fry.

Two colour forms of Notho­branchius eg­gersi —a ‘Utete’ (top) and ‘Bag­amoyo’.

Young Notho­branchius eg­gersi fry.

Notho­branchius kadleci.

Notho­branchius fo­er­schi is one of the longer lived species, with a life­span of up to a cou­ple of years.

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