COUNT ON MONTECRISTO
Meet the ‘Carlsberg’ cichlid. According to one Central American specialist, Oscura heterospila is probably the best cichlid in the world…
Why one cichlid buff reckons the Montecristo ought to be renamed the Carlsberg fish, because it’s ‘probably the best cichlid in the world’.
KEEPING CENTRAL American cichlids can be a bit of a learning curve. While there are many wonderful species available in the hobby, there are some overgrown, aggressive bullies out there too. Many a novice fishkeeper has bought a fish without doing their homework properly, and ended up with a big, bad bruiser who’s attacked (or worse) everything in their tank.
However, there is one utterly perfect, yet often underrated species that I’d go so far to describe as the ‘Carlsberg’ cichlid. To paraphrase the lager’s best-known marketing slogan (and in your best Orson Wells voice), it’s “Probably the best cichlid in the world”.
Oscura heterospila, commonly known as the Montecristo cichlid, is classed as a medium/large Central American cichlid. Some aquarists have described it as a rather bland-looking fish, but that’s simply not the case.
If kept in excellent conditions under natural-coloured lighting, it’s actually a very colourful deep-bodied cichlid – a rainbowhued fish, displaying attractive copper and black markings on the flanks and an iridescence of sparkling blues and greens on its unpaired fins.
Aquarium care If you plan to pair Oscura heterospila, then it’s best to buy a group of at least six fish. This will ensure the likelihood of a good male-to-female ratio and hopefully produce a strongly bonded pair. Tank size is well in the range of the everyday fishkeeper; you don’t need a swimming pool-sized aquarium to keep and breed these fish. To keep a semiadult pair or a young group, you would be looking in the range of 150x60x60cm. To keep fully grown adult pairs long term, increase the length of the tank to around 200cm. A Montecristo male can grow up to 25cm in length in the confines of the aquarium, so he needs a bit of space for territory and display to his female companion. There are no special requirements for keeping and breeding this species. They will adapt and live in most unadjusted tapwater, so long as you have medium/high hardness and a general ph of 7.0. Most Central American cichlids are fairly adaptable, so avoid the very
It’s actually a very colourful, deep-bodied cichlid – a rainbow-hued fish, displaying attractive copper and black markings on the flanks and an iridescence of sparkling blues and greens on its unpaired fins
extremes of both ends of the scale of hardness and ph and you should be good to go. Good filtration is required as centrals can be a little messy, and you need to aim for a steady temperature range of 24-28°C. Replace 20% of the water weekly, as this will encourage steady growth rates.
As for feeding, offer a mixed range of foods including both floating and sinking pellets, flake with added spirulina, blanched lettuce or spinach leaves, and regular amounts of higher protein foods such as chopped prawns and mussels. These foods will bring your fish into good colour and condition.
In the wild, Oscura heterospila is found in rivers and lakes on the Atlantic slope in South East Mexico and Guatemala in the Usumacinta/ Grijalva and Candelaria river basins. Its habitat ranges from open, rocky lakes and lagoons to slow to medium-flowing rivers, with either rock or quiet riverbank areas with submerged wood and leaf litter. Some of these habitats have lots of plants like Myriophyllum.
Since the species is found in so many different habitats, tank decor is entirely up to you, but I like to keep my Montecristos in tanks imitating quiet, jungle areas, with
lots of wood, branches and decaying leaves. The secluded jungle-scape based around the peaceful riverbanks of the Upper Candelaria River in Mexico is a good biotope to replicate. It makes an interesting centrepiece, especially if you have a large aquarium, where you can keep other fish too, and bring a real slice of Central American nature to your home.
You can safely introduce plants such as Myriophyllum or Ceratophyllum sp. (Hornwort). Hornwort is perhaps the easiest to grow as it doesn’t need to be anchored down – simply entangle the stems on submerged beech tree branches and let the plant just trail, periodically cutting it back if it starts to get out of control.
Decorate the aquarium with big pieces of driftwood. I collect my own – often large, weathered, oak branches with thinner beech branches. Use a natural substrate such as silver sand and mix in a little fine gravel to add texture. Add a small placement of smooth river rock, as these might be used as spawning sites. You could also place some prepared beech tree leaves upon the substrate, imitating the natural look of the river
and jungle. Tankmates Montecristo cichlids are excellent candidates for a Central American cichlid community tank, as you can add a range of compatible species. Like many cichlids, Oscura heterospila are generally mild mannered but, like all centrals, they can become quarrelsome, especially when breeding. I’ve found it better to keep them with smaller social species, such as both Thorichthys and Cribroheros complex.
They can also be happily kept with much larger species in bigger, display aquariums, and can certainly hold their own – especially large, mature fish. But in all the years I’ve kept them, I’ve never known one to become a bully who terrorises its tankmates. I’ve even kept them safely with much smaller livebearers,
like Xiphophorus hellerii and Poecilia mexicana, without any problems.
Breeding Montecristo cichlids is fairly straightforward. Pairs can form fairly early on in their development and I’ve had them breed when they’ve only been 10cm in length. It’s also worth raising a number of young if possible, as Oscura
heterospila are fairly uncommon in retail, so you should be able to spread them around the hobby. Remove a portion of fry from the parents after around two weeks and rear them on brineshrimp and finely crushed spirulina flakes. So, in a nutshell (or a pint glass?),
Oscura heterospila is my Carlsberg fish – my perfect Central American cichlid. They aren’t bullies, they’re compatible with many different species, they have colour and personality, they’re easy to breed and they won’t eat and destroy correctly chosen plants. Give them a try; you won’t be disappointed.
Could this be your perfect cichlid?
Leaf litter contains microrganisms for fry to feed on.
Parents use submerged wood for cover.
Pairs spawn on smooth-faced river rocks.
BELOW LEFT: Female. BELOW RIGHT: Male. Note the size difference.
BELOW: O.heterospila with fry in a biotope aquarium.
Above: Spawning is easy enough.