Until Death Do Us Part

It was approximately two years ago that we came into possession of a number of Apistogramma bitaeniata fry bought at an auction in Edmonton. We nurtured these fish along until we were able to discern gender. The males become quite large for a dwarf cichlid, approximately 75 mm from nose to caudal fin tip. The males have a dusty brownish/gray body with a black lateral line running down the body from the mouth to the base of the caudal fin. They also possess a black eye band that runs from under the eye to the jaw. The upper and lower rays of the caudal fin are elongated giving a lyreate tail shape. As well, the third through the seventh rays of the dorsal fin are elongated and tipped in yellow. Depending on the mood of the fish a second faint parallel lateral line can be seen as well as a faint lateral spot mid-body. All of the fins are greatly exaggerated giving this fish a beautiful profile when swimming. The fins have a conspicuous striped pattern of yellow, blue and some rusty brown. In the right mood, the body of the male can take on pale yellow and blue hues. The face almost always has a yellowish/gold cast to it.

The females look like all other females of the Apistogramma genus. Basically they have small (approximately 50 mm) slender bodies sporting a brownish/gray coloration with a black lateral line, a black band below the eye, and black markings through the first three rays of the dorsal fin and through the ventral fins. The fins of the females are short and not too spectacular. However, the females really shine when decked out in their spawning colors. Their whole body turns a beautiful bright gold with their black markings becoming quite distinct. At this time there are few other fish that can compare with their brilliance.

As is almost always the case, pictures shown in books bear only a fleeting resemblance to the male fish (females are rarely shown) that aquarists keep. This lack of consistency in coloration is particularly prevalent in the Apistogramma genus where a variety of color morphs exist within each species. As well, some of the color variation seen may be due to captive breeding, normal genetic variations within the genus and cross-breeding between species (captive fish have been known to cross breed). Hybridizing amongst species is a disturbing concept as it is already very difficult to identify individual species without having to figure for hybrids. We have first hand experience on how difficult it can be to differentiate between species. When transferring some Mikrogeophagus altispinosus fry from one tank to another an A. macmasteri was transferred inadvertently. Normally this would not be a problem except that we had some A. amoema in the new tank. Being in a hurry I thought I’d come back later and remove the interloper. Well, to this day the interloper remains in the tank with the A. amoema because all of these fish look the same. Consequently, any eggs laid can not be trusted to not be hybrids. As a rule we generally keep each species of Apistogramma in a separate tank due to the difficulty in identifying each type, the chance of hybridizing and also as insurance against the mysterious occurrence of some incredibly virulent bug that will wipe out whole tanks in days (but that’s another story). However, I digress. We were confident that what we purchased were A. bitaeniata due to the reliability of the seller as well as careful matching of the fishes characteristics with those listed in Dwarf Cichlids by Linke and Staeck (1994), our bible.

When the fry had grown sufficiently so that we could distinguish males from females, we divided them into pairs and moved them into separate tanks. We ended up with two pairs and some extra males. Each pair was put into a well planted tank, one 40-liter tank and one 100-liter community tank. The fish settled into their new homes quickly. The pair in the community tank settled in most quickly with the male soon becoming the king of the tank. This aquarium contained several species of Corydoras, glowlight tetras, rummy noses, croaking gouramis, and a bushy-nosed pleco. Watersprite covered the top of the tank while Vallisneria, two large Echinodorus bleheri, and a stump covered with Java fern decorated the bottom. The 40-liter tank containing the other pair was decorated with driftwood and Hygrophilia polysperma. All members of the Apistogramma genus like well-planted tanks with pieces of wood, rock or pottery that provide small niches and hiding spots. If this is provided they settle in quickly and become visible swimming through the planted lower half of the tank. If, however, these fish are unhappy you will rarely see them as they will remain hidden or they will pine away on you.

In the wild, A. bitaeniata inhabits the upper and central regions of the Amazon River in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. Living almost exclusively in black water biotopes where there are several layers of leaf litter, these fish enjoy extremely acidic (pH 5.8) and soft water (< 20 PPM) conditions. However, we found these fish to be very adaptable to local conditions as we could not duplicate this environment at home. Since the water in our area is hard we use a resin pillow to help soften our water. This pillow swaps sodium ions for calcium ions. The resultant salt in the water does not seem to harm any of our fish, even those that are salt sensitive. The hardness of our treated water is approximately 180 PPM with the pH remaining greater than 7.5. Both tanks were kept at 25C to 27C. When rain water or snow was available we used it to supplement the treated tap water to further soften the water and lower the pH. We had some concerns over whether or not the fish would spawn in these conditions as many fish will survive but fail to breed. We got lucky.

Both pairs started spawning in early winter. The females turned golden and became very protective of their chosen sites. One female preferred the ceiling of a tipped rock while the other chose a crevice in one of the pieces of driftwood. A day or two prior to spawning both the males and females became very aggressive towards their mates. No damage was ever done but there was lots of fin flaring, chasing and shaking. At first, this behavior caused us great concern but after observing that no damage was ever done we took this as part of the normal spawning ritual. When the female was finally ready to spawn she swam into her little niche, turning upside down to lay the eggs, three to five at a time, on the cleaned surface of the rock or log. The male then followed as best he could (the spawning cave or crevice were too small for the males to completely get into), turning on his side to release his milt. This continued until all the eggs had been laid, usually 50 to 60 eggs in two to three hours. We had decided early on that we would give each pair the opportunity to raise their eggs and fry independently. While not holding much hope for the fry in the community tank (we did not have enough tank space to give each pair their own tank) we hoped that the other pair would be successful. Not much happened with the first few spawns. One day the eggs would be there, then later there would be none. From previous experience with other Apistogramma we knew that the eggs take at least three to five days to hatch depending on the temperature, so we assumed they had been eaten. While the female guarded the eggs, she would aggressively chase the male off into some corner of the tank and would only eat if food drifted down near her cave. Being very young fish, we assumed that they would take a few spawns to get the hang of this parenting thing. Sure enough, while feeding the fish one morning I noticed a bunch of little black dots hovering in the corner of the 40-liter with a very golden defensive female g uarding them. We were thrilled as this was the first time we had ever been successful in getting a pair to raise fry. However, this new found excitement was short lived as over the next few days the fry disappeared. They were being fed newly hatched brine shrimp and I had witnessed them eating so I could only assume that the parents had been snacking. Chastising them thoroughly, they were told that their next batch of eggs were going to be ours. They seemed to take this threat to heart and never spawned again in the 40-liter tank. After several months, in frustration, I moved them into a larger community tank with other South American species. The male died not long after and attempts to introduce any of the spare males to the widow were unsuccessful.

As anyone who keeps Apistogramma species knows, these little fish are notorious for suddenly developing some obscure disease and dying the next day. They start by showing signs of respiratory distress and are usually dead in the morning. Attempts to discover the reason for this has lead me to believe that piscine tuberculosis may play an important part as dwarf cichlids are quite susceptible to this disease with many acting as carriers. This disease can remain latent for quite some time before some stressor triggers its acute stage. Anyway, over the course of the next year our bitaeniata died off. I was becoming desperate so in a last ditch effort I took the female from the 100-liter tank (the male had since died) and our last male, and paired them together in a 60-liter tank. By this time both of these fish were at least a year and a half old. In the wild, apistos are considered an annual fish as when the water levels drop during the dry season the adults become vulnerable to predators, starve from insufficient food or become stranded as their ponds dry up, so I was certain that time was running short. They seemed to like each other and soon started to show signs of getting ready to spawn. As mature fish both were quite a sight. The male was huge and showed beautiful muted colors as well as incredible finnage. The female was big and plump and lit up the tank when in her spawning regalia. However, good looks are fleeting whereas propagation of the species ensures representation over time: each spawn was unsuccessful and then they just stopped spawning. At their peak, these little fish will lay eggs every two to three weeks if they have no fry to care for. A change of temperature induces them to spawn so after each water change I would look for signs of spawning activity. They were being fed a diet of frozen brine shrimp and blood worms and the occasional treat of freeze-dried tubifex. They would occasionally eat flake food but only if they were really hungry.

Finally, having accepted that we were not going to be successful with this species, I moved them both back into the 60-liter tank where they settled in quickly and resumed dominating the other fish. When summer arrives we tend to be less observant of the tanks so it was with some surprise that I noted in late July, the female chasing the Corydoras away from the stump in one corner of the tank. Close observation of the sight revealed nothing unusual but the golden female was determinedly keeping everyone out of the corner. As I watched, tiny little black specks came out of the gravel and hovered just above the bottom. Some of them were pecking at the algae on the log and at the back of the tank. I knew that other species of fish would steer their fry to algae covered surfaces, so this must have been what the female had been doing as the fry were free swimming and had probably been for at least a week (once hatched the fry wiggle for at least a week before becoming free swimming). Weighing options, I decided that the best results would be achieved through dividing the tank with a partition so that the female and fry could remain with the stump while the other inhabitants, including the male, could remain in the other part. This wasn’t difficult to do as the female was very effective in keeping all away from her babies. This situation worked very well, allowing me to feed baby brine shrimp to the fry as well as foods for the adult fish. The excess shrimp would swim through the tiny holes in the partition and the Aquaclear 150 filter maintained adequate filtration for the whole tank without creating a current that the small fry would be unable to handle. Toward the end of August we were preparing for a holiday so I knew that alternate arrangements needed to be made to make fish feeding easier for the boy who would care for the fish. I removed all the other fish except the male and removed the partition. I swapped the Aquaclear 150 for a Mini Aquaclear to reduce the current. By this time the fry were 4 mm to 5 mm. and needed the extra space. The male showed no interest in his swarm of offspring and continued about his business. The intricacies of the brine shrimp hatcher have eluded our holiday fish feeder so I froze several batches of newly hatched shrimp in ice cube trays. A melting ice cube of brine shrimp placed in the tank was eagerly accepted by all the fry and by both parents. A week before we left, the male was found floating on the surface. I was sorry to see him go as we had developed quite a rapport. He was the only Apistogramma I’ve ever had who would take food from my fingers. As always when away from home I worry about who decided to "meet their maker". I was especially concerned about the fry as they were still not very old. However, I was pleasantly surprised when we returned ten days later to find that the fry had not only survived but had grown markedly.

As I bring this story to its close the fry, approximately 50, are all happy and growing like weeds. The female finally died a few weeks ago. The tank looks strangely empty without her golden form zinging around for the choicest morsels of food. She remained golden to the end probably because she remained with her fry. In retrospect I think we would have had far more luck in spawning this species if we had started with a larger tank. I have read articles stating that less then a 160-liter tank ensures failure. In my, experience I would say less than a 100-liter tank for this species is certain to bring failure. However, everyone’s experiences will be different so I offer this only as a guideline. While not the most colorful of fish they have many other attributes that make this fish a worthwhile keeper. If you are searching for fish with overall charm and personality I would recommend A. bitaeniata. Not as shy as some of the other apistos, they are quite entertaining to watch when something is needed to help you relieve the stresses of the day. I’m glad that both the fish and fishkeepers hung in there until death did we part! ?