The Genus Pelvicachromis< Part I: The Krib

My favorite fish, bar none, is the ubiquitous krib. Well, actually it’s the coho salmon, but my favorite aquarium fish is the krib. The krib was the first cichlid I successfully bred, and in my early teens I had a pair in every tank I owned. But sadly, space limitations mean that I don’t own any at all at the moment. But someday soon….

Why do I like them so much? Well they have all the good things that make other cichlids so popular, but none of their drawbacks. They are colorful, smart, delightful to watch, and make wonderful parents. But they don’t wage unceasing warfare on each other and their tank mates, they aren’t so huge as to require a swimming pool, they do not think of aquarium plants as salad, and they do not insist that the proper place for aquarium gravel is in a gigantic pile on one side of the tank.

The krib is a smallish, elongated cichlid, usually less then 10cm in total length. Males are always significantly bigger than the females, and they also have a more elongated body shape. But the females have the color. And the spunk. In this genus it is the smaller females that initiate courtship, establish the territories, flash the brilliant colors, and basically call the shots. The larger lumbering males seem like dolts in comparison.

The krib is also the most commonly seen species of the genus Pelvicachromis. Its scientific name is Pelvicachromis pulcher but it was for years sold under the erroneous species name “kribensis”, a practice that has resulted in its common name.

The name “kribensis’ is however thoroughly inappropriate, as it refers to the southern Cameroon coastal town of Kribi, a location where Pelvicachromis pulcher is not even found. The fish instead comes from Nigeria, the country to the north-west of Cameroon. Specifically, from west of the delta of the mighty Niger River, which empties into the Atlantic on the central Nigerian coast.

Pelvicachromis pulcher is one of only a very few dwarf cichlids that are bred commercially, and they have become regular aquarium store fare…nowadays they are almost considered “bread and butter” fishes in the aquarium trade.

Commercially bred kribs have one important advantage over their wild brethren: they are much less demanding as to water chemistry and will adapt to (and breed in) local water much more readily than wild specimens.

Commercially bred fish are almost always sold as juveniles, which is entirely appropriate, but this has the unfortunate effect that few hobby beginners find out what colorful fishes they are. The washed-out juveniles are easily passed over in favor of such artificial fishes as the red swordtail, and so the krib does not appear in as many beginners’ tanks as it deserves to be. But an adult female in good condition will show much more color and generate far more interest than the unchanging velvet red and the mechanistic behavior of a line-bred swordtail. She will continuously flirt with her mate, flashing a belly with the loveliest wine-red in the aquarium world. So don’t be fooled by the washed-out juveniles in the store…when they grow up these are beautiful fish.

The preponderance of commercially bred kribs also has other drawbacks. The genetic quality of intensively bred, commercial fishes is usually poor. This doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem with kribs as with many other fishes…at least commercial kribs still look like the right fish…but I would still consider those rare occasions when “wild-caught kribs” are offered for sale as a chance not to be missed when selecting potential breeding stock.

However, be careful when selecting “wild-caught kribs” as they may very likely turn out not to be Pelvicachromis pulcher. If you recognize these fish, however, this is not a problem, but a great opportunity to collect the unusual.

It is universally reported that the sex ratio of Pelvicachromis fry is skewed by inappropriate water chemistry (like ours). Water that is more alkaline than the soft, acidic rainforest streams of their West African home is supposed to result in a preponderance of females being born. But this has not been my experience as I have always gotten males in hard, alkaline water. I suppose all the stock that I have ever bred from were themselves commercially bred fish, and this may have had an effect in evening out the sex ratio, but in my opinion the role in pH in sex determination of Pelvicachromis is over emphasized. But I could well be wrong… if any local breeders have had all-female hatchings of Pelvicachromis in local water I would be very interested in hearing about it.

Keeping kribs in the home is very easy, with the proviso that wild-caught fish may be difficult to acclimatize. But once settled in, they are hardy and resilient fish.

They should be kept in pairs. The usual cichlid procedure of keeping more females than males is unnecessary and potentially hazardous, as the females tend to fight more than the males. At least one cave (of some sort) must be provided for each pair. A single pair can be kept in quite a small tank (40 liters is fine) but if you have more than one pair then the space requirements increase rapidly. Two pairs need at least 80cm of floor space between their respective caves or warfare will result. This means that, at the very least, a 120-liter tank is needed for two pairs, and an even larger tank is highly recommended.

The substrate should be very fine gravel or sand. Kribs like to dig around their homes, and I do not believe that frustrating this behavior with gravel that’s too big for their mouths is the way to keep a happy krib. Let them dig…it gives them something to do. And cleaning out the cave is an important part of the mating ritual.

Feeding is a simple matter as well. The standard aquarium fare is fine for kribs, but like all cichlids they appreciate live foods once in a while. They are micro-predators in the wild, so Daphnia, blood worms, and mosquito larvae are good foods for them. White worms and chopped earthworms are devoured with particular gusto, but such rich foods should not make up the bulk of their diet. Some vegetables in the form of Spirulina flake are also a good idea.

These fish are great in a planted or community aquarium, and in fact, the presence of a school of dither fish is highly recommended. If kept alone, your fish will likely stay in their caves most of the time…and there is no point in having them if you never see them. They are much more extroverted in a community aquarium. They will of course keep any tank mates away from their caves, but they will not harm the interlopers if they have the sense to retreat. Congo tetras are ideal dither fish, as they are beautiful, school openly, and come from the same waters. But any schooling tetra, danio, barb, or rainbowfish will do. You don’t even have to worry about fin nippers, like tiger barbs, as no krib will ever allow her fins to be nipped by a mere barb.

Spawning and rearing the krib is not difficult, and neither is getting a compatible pair. Ideally, one would like to bring up half a dozen to a dozen unrelated young fish together in a large tank, and let them pair off on their own. But I’ve never done this. I’ve always just placed a male and female together. They’ve never killed each other as a result. Not every single one of these randomly introduced pairs spawned, but almost all of them got around to it eventually.

Spawning will occur spontaneously in the community aquarium without any intervention on your part whatsoever. You may be unaware of the event, however, as nuptial arrangements tend to be quite a private affair among kribs. If you don’t see the female for a few days and the male is still hanging around the cave, then you can be pretty sure that there are eggs in the cave.

Unfortunately, I have found that egg fertility rates are extremely low and fungusing is a severe problem. I have no doubt that this was caused by the hard alkaline water from the western Manitoba well I was drawing from (I have never raised kribs in Calgary where the water is considerably softer). Hopefully, you’ll get more than the few viable spawns I got. There is unlikely to be any reason to separate young from the parents unless they are in a community tank. I have never spawned a krib that didn’t prove to be an excellent parent.

The babies are easy to raise. They take newly hatched brine shrimp immediately and grow quickly. As mentioned, conventional wisdom would have it that most of the fry will be females under alkaline conditions, so CO2 injection or other pH reducing measures may be warranted if you find that this is the case with your spawns.

Next month, I’ll discuss the other species of Pelvicachromis that may show up in local stores from time to time. ?