Small but perfectly formed, and so striking and extravagantly coloured they sometimes barely look like real fish, the magnificent Ram ticks all the boxes.
So striking and extravagantly coloured they barely look real, the magnificent German Ram cichlid ticks all the boxes.
Is that a real fish?” a family member asked, wide-eyed and awestruck as the exquisite little cichlid zoomed from one end of the 8ft planted display to the other, showing off his extraordinary kaleidoscope of breeding colours.
had they been a customer, I would have responded with a polite smile but, “Nah, it’s plastic,” I replied sarcastically.
the truth is that before I set eyes on this truly beautiful F1 Germanbred Ram cichlid, Mikrogeophagus
ramirezi, I hadn’t been the least bit bothered about such an omnipresent species.
Once bitten, twice shy
I know I’m not alone in this. Many of us have tried to fit the colourful amazonian dwarf cichlid into our community aquarium with mixed success.
Customers who have been seduced by this fish’s good looks and manageable size are quick to report every problem under the sun, from their Ram becoming a dreadful bully to the other fish, to it simply paling, ailing and fading away as it cowers in a corner. For some reason, newly imported Rams can be quite vulnerable to whitespot, with disastrous results if not treated early.
though certain varieties are hardier than others, Rams are still particular in their needs. they can tolerate a wide variety of tankmates, but water should be soft and acidic with very low nitrates. temperatures should also be much higher than average. they may thrive in the upper reaches of the 20°Cs, but it’s not unheard of for the most colourful pairs to spawn at 29-30°C. treat breeding pairs of Rams as you would breeding pairs of Discus and you’re almost there. Ideal home With an adult size of just under 8cm, smaller community tanks make perfectly good homes for
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi (by ‘smaller’ I mean 80-125 l, not 60 l or less).
however, the Ram mentioned at the start of the article inhabited an enormous planted display that had been set-up to house a dozen Discus, plus a few hundred Black phantoms, and was patrolling
the lower reaches quite happily, so biotopes can be a good starting point. Blackwater, leaf litter and a fine sandy substrate will make them feel at home (like all cichlids great and small, Rams love to dig) and when it comes to plants, more is more.
The presence of ‘dither fish’ can go a long way towards settling shy new arrivals too. A huge shoal of Cardinals, Lemons or Black emperors won’t just look stunning in your aquarium, they’ll also remind the small and easily preyed-upon Ram that there’s nothing to be afraid of. For the upper reaches of the tank, pencilfish, Splash tetra and Hatchets can co-exist happily, as newly introduced Rams tend to hug the substrate and are unlikely to be bothered by something they won’t interact with. For those looking for something with a big wow factor to really show off their Rams, a ‘Dutch-style’ heavily planted community tank will provide ample hiding places, but well-settled Rams will soon reward you for it, with each of these territorial cichlids developing a unique personality. They are best kept as the only cichlid in the tank, but I couldn’t help enjoying the petty squabbles that broke out between my Rams, Red-breast acaras and Golden-eye dwarves when the three cichlid species shared a 350 l planted tank. Although its striking colours make it seem fierce to tankmates, the Ram’s tiny puckered mouth doesn’t put it in a position to do any serious damage to rivals, and most disputes are resolved with a bit of fin flaring and chasing, but not much more.
Breeding Rams used to be considered notoriously difficult, but can now be attempted by even the casual hobbyist if the parameters are right – a ph below 6.5 is a must for the eggs to develop properly.
The biggest problem is preventing new and inexperienced parents from eating their own eggs at every opportunity. For this reason, many aquarists choose to carefully syphon
Rams feed mostly on insects and small crustaceans, so this apparent vegetarian wasn’t just unusual, he was a bit of an insult to Darwinism
out the eggs and put them in a separate rearing tank (easy enough to do as the eggs are usually laid on a flat stone or slate). The fry can then be fed on newly hatched brineshrimp and microworms, though they will also graze plants for other micro fauna.
A word of caution though; Rams have big broods, and it’s not uncommon for a pair to produce several hundred fry at a time. Unlike Apistogramma, or the mouth-brooding cichlids of the African rift lakes, they’re not very good at herding their fry together, so the curious young Rams will quickly form a sort of messy cloud right across the tank, only gathering in one spot when food is offered.
If you’ve tried everything from RO water to oak leaves and simply can’t get your Rams to breed, it’s worth investigating their origins. It’s long been speculated that many Rams from large farms are actually sterile, so seeking a pair that are as close to wild-caught as possible is the best way to ensure both breeding success and good parental care.
Blues and golds
An exception can be made, of course, for the many varied colour morphs available in the hobby. Seen at its best, the Electric blue ram is so bright and striking, it’s prompted many other ‘is that fish real?’ moments among my customers. It’s notoriously difficult to sex, given that it lacks the extended dorsal fins of the wild male or the bright pink belly of the wild female, but by adding a group to a large, wellestablished aquarium, you can usually form at least one monogamous pair.
Opt for the chunkiest and healthiest-looking fish you can find (not including balloon varieties, unless you’re into that sort of thing), and bear in mind that intensity of colour is not always an indicator of quality. The Golden ram is an altogether different beast – neither a wild strain nor a man-made hybrid, but something of a mixture. The curious red eye, elongated fin rays and bright blue scales are still present in the best examples, but gone are the black bands on the face and flanks.
Golden rams are tolerant of a wider range of temperatures and water parameters, so might appeal to the fishkeeper looking for something easier than its wild cousin, but less garish than the Electric blue. In my experience, they also take less time to reach adult size in captivity and a few I’ve come across have more
Though its striking colours make it seem fierce to tankmates, the Ram’s tiny puckered mouth doesn’t put it in a position to do any serious damage to rivals
than exceeded the expected size.
A rarely seen and more subtle species is the Bolivian Ram,
Mikrogeophagus altispinosus. It’s frequently overlooked in favour of brighter family members, but this is not a fish to be cold-shouldered. With an adult size of 8.9cm, it’s often significantly bigger but more peaceful than any other Ram you’re likely to keep.
What’s more, in a planted tank the transformation can be truly incredible with its pale silver body taking on shades of yellow, blue, pink and even fiery orange. The screaming pink dorsal fins and tail of an adult in breeding colouration should earn them a firm place on every aquarist’s wishlist, whether they’re a cichlid fan or not.
My initial experiences with Rams began long before I could remember the common names of whatever happened to inhabit my community tank, but one particular moment stands out. A few years ago, in a previous shop, I was trying to entice a shipment of wild-caught Plec species to accept algae wafers (probably a little dry for the tastes of Golden nugget and Snowball plecs), when a small Ram from the same delivery caught my eye. While the rest of the brood were hungrily slurping tubifex and glassworm from the surface, this little guy had other ideas.
For as long as I watched him and much longer, he hovered in a corner, methodically pecking at one of the wood fibre and spirulina plec pellets with a quiet determination. Like most dwarf cichlids, Rams feed mostly on insects and small crustaceans, so this apparent vegetarian wasn’t just unusual, he was a bit of an insult to Darwinism. Thoroughly won over, I took him home that night.
But even if the mental image of that weirdo of a Ram happily munching courgette and carrot with my loricariidae isn’t enough for you, consider this. What other fish has such a winning combination of looks, personality and availability, all the while coming in such a fun-sized parcel? Rams are living proof that a cichlid doesn’t have to be the size of a rugby ball to be the stand-out centrepiece in your tank.
BELOW LEFT: The natural strain has an abundance of colour.
BELOW: Golden rams are less fussy about water conditions.
BELOW: The bold colours of the Electric blue ram.
Males can be so eager to spar with other males they’ll turn on a reflection!
BELOW: Bolivian rams are larger, but still very peaceful fish.