Image from “Cichlids plus”
| The cichlids of Madagascar have become a bit more available in the past 5 years, particularly the Paretroplus, Ptychochromis and Lamena species from the Betsiboka drainage in the northwest portion of the island which includes the Kalamilotra River. The conservation status of these fishes is highly endangered as are most other Madagascan cichlids, due to the destruction of most of their natural habitat. Another problem has been the introduction of ‘foreign’ species such as non-native tilapia and snakeheads, to help feed the population of one of the world’s poorest countries.
Perhaps my favorite of the Madagascar cichlids is Paratilapia bleekeri.
There exists considerable confusion among taxonomists as to whether there are in fact two Paratilapia species; one with small spots currently known as P. polleni and one with larger spots – bleekeri. Regardless, both species look very similar but for the size of the brilliant irridescent silver blue spots covering the entire body. The base color of adult Paratilapia is a velvety brown-black. The dorsal fin typically has a yellow to white margin along its entire length and there are some, myself included, who feel that this margin is noticeably wider in males. As with many cichlids, males are larger than females, fins are more pointed and males develop a small ‘hump on the forehead when in good condition. Males grow to 25-30 cm (10-12 inches) while females top out a bit smaller at 16-18cm. Though I’ve spawned this species at about 8 inches, it takes about three years for them to reach maximum size in a suitably sized aquarium – 120 gallons for a pair. Paratilapia can be kept with other fish which are not small enough to be considered food.
Despite the quite large mouth of Paratilapia, they are not primarily predatory on fish but rather, feed on crustaceans, insects, tadpoles, small frogs and very occasionally, small fish. In the aquarium, Paratilapia will take any suitably sized offering, preferring pellets and chunks to flakes of any type.
This is a quiet and relatively peaceful species. They are diggers during breeding season but otherwise will not generally rearrange your aquarium gravel or decorations and will leave well rooted plants alone. Juveniles are difficult to sex and thus, attaining a pair is best done by starting with 5-6 individuals in at least 100 gallons. Males will fight relentlessly if space is inadequate and territorial markers such as bogwood and rocks are limited. Though this is not a particularly aggressive cichlid, they are by no means timid, so when a pair is formed, it’s best to remove the unpaired fish. Pair formation will be observed to include the male and female spending more time together, shoveling and spitting gravel and ‘quivering’ of the male with head down, while displaying for the female.
Paratilapia bleekeri seems to be a difficult cichlid to spawn and I know very few cichlidophiles who have succeeded. There are various reports of spawning at 84°F, 9°dH and a pH of 9.4 and also at 80°F, 750 microseimens/cm and a pH of 7.0. My pair spawned at 78°F, with a chemistry of about 19° dGH, 15° dKH and a pH of 8.0. I think it’s safe to suggest therefor, that spawning is not necessarily the result of any particularly perfect water chemistry, but rather, is a far more complicated and multi-factorial issue. Moreover, Madagascan cichlids are notorious for eating their eggs in captivity, which certainly does not help their endangered status. It is therefore recommended to either remove most of the eggs, to be hatched artificially in another tank or remove some of the fry should you be successful in getting the eggs to that stage. Some suggest maintaining Paratilapia species in slightly brackish water – about one teaspoon per ten gallons. I’ve kept them both in brackish and freshwater, spawned them in both and noticed no difference in behaviour or health. Why spawning does occur for some and not others remains a mystery to me.
Egg laying by the female is most typically found to occur on horizontal, flat surfaces. The eggs exist as a salmon colored ‘clump’ which stick together and not to the substrate, and are ‘mouthed’ and moved frequently by the female. In my experience, it’s rare for this egg cluster to fungus and some feel that this may be due to the possible coating of the eggs with an antibacterial and fungistatic secretion by the constant attendance of the female. Individual eggs are quite small for a cichlid of this size – about 1 mm in size. The male will ferociously patrol the perimeter of the spawning site with fins fully extended and gill covers flared while the female fans the egg cluster. The larvae hatch in about two days and are then placed in a pit dug by either parent. From then on, the fry move freely around the tank, followed by both parents who will occassionally grab strays and ‘spit’ them back into the main group. Fry grow to about 11 mm total length within three weeks.
If you’ve got a large enough tank, why not consider keeping these beautiful cichlids. They are fairly easy to maintain and, although quite a challenge when it comes to spawning, you will be assisting the conservation effort and perhaps helping to save these gorgeous Madagascan fishes from eventual extinction.
Written by: Dan Colodney