The Jaguar Cichlid

I may as well come clean; I’m a sucker for big cichlids. Not the kind that tear the other tank inhabitants to shreds and your tank with them, but big, nice cichlids. (They do exist, in case you are wondering). It was with this in mind that I made inquiries into the nature of a fish that has always fascinated me, the jaguar cichlid.

The extent of my knowledge of this beautiful cichlid was very limited, as most aquarium books do not contain any specific information on it, so I consulted our club library. This is a summary of what I have learned, both from books and from watching my own fish.

The jaguar cichlid (formerly Cichlasoma, Heros, Parapetenia but now Nandopsis managuense) can be termed a "robust" cichlid. They range from Costa Rica to Nicaragua and the eastern Honduras, but have been introduced to many rivers on both coasts of Central America, where they are valued as a food fish. They inhabit slow moving rivers and streams, especially tributaries of large rivers. The water in these courses is turbid, but, since the water is shallow and running, it is well oxygenated. They seem to like water movement, and will play in the stream of my AquaClear 1200. The water chemistry in their native waters is much like our own, with a pH of 7.0 to 8.7 and a hardness of 350 ppm to 410 ppm depending on the season.

As for temperature, they do like it a bit on the cool side, from about 22C to 25C. In the interests of Peace In The Tank, it may be wise to keep the temperature near the lower end of their comfortable range because they are less active at 22C than they are at 25C. Keeping these fish in cooler water has another advantage; they eat less and therefore produce less waste. And this means, as you guessed it, fewer tank cleanings!

The jaguar cichlid is a large fish by aquarium standard, with adults reaching 30 cm to 50 cm in length, so a large tank is necessary. There is even one book that recommends as much as 200 liters of water per fish! I have two in a 400-liter tank, but they share it with a 20 cm Geophagus braziliensis, a Theraps nicaraguense, and some jade-eyed cichlids (Archocentrus spilurus). The jaguars haven’t caused any trouble, although I do plan to separate them before they have a chance to spawn. They are fond of caves and need plenty of nooks and hiding places as they love exploring and need a place to rest after feeding. An interesting quirk in regard to caves, though, is that my fish are not territorial about them, and are willing to share space with the jade-eyes. When I say "share" space, that’s exactly what I mean. The jaguars are peaceful and don’t pick on other fish if the other fish don’t try to push them around. It does not matter if the other fish is five timers their size, if pushed they will turn around and take a chunk out of the aggressor. And as natural predators they are well equipped to do so! But once the other fish learn that it doesn’t pay to play dominance games with such well-armed tank-mates, peace reigns once again.

As always, a note of caution. The jaguar is what is termed a "predatory" fish, and although I haven’t had any trouble with aggression, I’m sure that when "Shaka" is a foot long he will not hesitate to eat that little red ram that is in his tank now! After spawning, jaguar parents are also very protective and need a tank of their own. With spawns of four to five thousand fry to protect, I can understand why.

So what is it that make these fish so appealing? For me, primarily, it is their character. The way they look at you around feeding times as if to say "feed the fish, please?" and the fact that they are more of a "pet" than just another fish. They are more intelligent than, say, your average guppy, and can definitely recognize and differentiate between other people and myself. And since they are also passionately devoted to food, I have trained both "Shaka" and "Shawna" to jump put of the water to take tidbits from my hand.

Each fish has numerous personality quirks and definite moods, all of which can be fascinating to watch. They also change color, from light grey to almost black within seconds, and each different color pattern is indicative of a different mood. For example, a pale grey is the jaguar’s fright pattern, and a light color with a prominent dark lateral stripe means aggression. When they are full of food and want to be left alone they assume a darker, blotchy pattern on the dorsal half, a dark lateral stripe, and a very light belly. This is, when you think about it, a good camouflage for a fish that is carrying a heavy meal and stands less chance against its enemies. As juveniles they are a light grey with very little of the adult spotted patterning, but as they age they darken and the white spotting becomes evident. For those who just can’t resist the urge to spawn them, the females are smaller, with a more pronounced lateral stripe, and a more rotund figure than the males. The males tend to be more brilliantly colored with longer fins although they do not develop fin extensions.

Also, if you are a potential breeder, a word about spawning the jaguar cichlid. A good way to get a compatible breeding pair is to raise several young fish together, because introducing two adults to each other can be risky. Sexing the fish at a relatively early age (8 cm to 10 cm) seems to be fairly easy as the females are noticeably smaller than the males. They do not seem to need special breeding water, but they do need a large tank. As mentioned, 200 liters of water per fish is not unreasonable. They are biparental substrate spawners that form devoted nuclear families, with protective parents and from four to five thousand young. One fish club member reports that when he put his hand in a tank of parents with fry, the adults actually grabbed his arm and pushed it out of the tank!

I hope that anyone who is lucky to own, or able to get, some of these beautiful fish will have as much fun as I have. Happy fish feeding!?