Breeding Project: Apistogramma

Merry Christmas!

Here is the next installment in the Breeding Project video series, but this time I will not be introducing just a single species.  Instead, this video is going to describe what I do when I am working with any species in the genus Apistogramma.  Enjoy…

Breeding Apistogramma – full transcript

Time for another Breeding Project, but this time I am not going to describe a single species. This video will describe the strategies I use to breed Apistogramma, dwarf cichlids from South America.

There are differences between species of apistos, but for the most part the tanks are set up the same. I will describe the basic layout of the tank, filtration, water changes and feeding, and then address the methods I use to get the water parameters right. I will end with a little tour of the different Apistogramma species I am currently hoping to spawn.

I use relatively small aquariums for breeding Apistos, usually a 10-gallon tank for most species, and maybe a 15-gallon or 20-gallon long aquarium for larger, more boisterous species, or for species that breed in trios or harems.

Let’s start with a bare tank and set it up for housing a pair of apistos. This is a 10-gallon aquarium faced end-out on the aquarium. Orientation does not matter, but going end-out makes it easier to create some visually-isolated hiding places in the tank.

Substrate is a secondary concern to me. Apistogramma are not big diggers, so having a layer of sand or gravel on the bottom is not required. I like to use a light dusting of sand, maybe ¼” at the deepest, for aesthetics, but I think that an apisto will be perfectly happy in a bare tank. Especially if there is some leaf litter (which we will get to).

I use small, air-driven sponge filters to keep the water clean. And I want the air flow to the filter to be adjustable. I turn the air down and raise the lift tube up to the surface so that the water flow does not disturb the overall calmness of the water in the tank. Most apistos are not found in fast moving water. Most are found in bottom-land swampy areas with no current at all.

Something that I do that most people do not, is place a yarn spawning mop in the back of the tank next to the filter. The purpose of the mop is to provide a dense hiding place in the tank. Fish that are being chased can escape under, behind or even into the yarn of the mop. The mop will also collect some detritus as it ages, and will become a source of microscopic food particles for small fry. The yarn will also be more surface area for beneficial bacteria in the aquarium, which helps the water stay clean.

I use a spawning cave of some type in the tank. The caves can be just about anything that provides a protected place for the female to lay her eggs in. Apistogramma prefer to lay their eggs on vertical surfaces, or the roof of the cave. Small openings are also helpful. The male does not need to fit in the hole, because be can flood the cave with his milt… but the fertilization rate will be higher if he can get into the spawning site with the female.

A piece of driftwood provides more structure, and will also release tannin into the water. Tannin helps to lower the pH in soft water, and has some chemical properties that benefit the fish in ways that are not completely understood. The natural habitats for these dwarf cichlids are usually black-water habitats with a lot of tannin.

Leaf litter is a natural cover, which also provides hiding places, adds tannin and reduces the pH. I like to use oak, elm, beech and magnolia leaves, which much be dry before using them. I soak the leaves in hot water, and let them sit in the water overnight, before using them. Soaking removes most of the tannin and helps the leaves to sink. There will still be plenty of tannin in the leaves to benefit the fish. I do not use any type of chestnut, hickory or walnut leaves, which contain some alkali chemicals that can kill the fish.

I maintain my fish room temperature at 75F, and the top row of tanks on my racks stay about that temperature all the time, so I do not use heaters in apisto tanks. A few species like water temperature to be a bit warmer, so I may use a heater for them, or a may use a heater to increase temperature to get a reluctant pair to spawn.

When I start an aquarium for a new breeding pair, I use my tap water in the aquarium because the fish have been quarantined in my tap water. I let the aquarium run for a couple days before adding the fish.

I have the advantage of being able to see many individuals to choose from. I pick females based upon color. A female that is showing breeding colors in the quarantine tank is probably a dominant female. I like to start breeding pairs as trios, with the second female being slightly smaller than the first that I choose.   Sometimes the two females live in harmony, and sometimes one is chased a lot. A female that is being chased too much will be removed once it is apparent that the male and dominant female are going to get along.

The fish I choose are young and vibrant. I do not want a big, old male. Large dwarf cichlid males may be a bit past their prime. Males are also going to be aggressive towards the female at first, so a smaller male is less likely to kill her.

I start to soften the water a day after I introduce the breeders to the aquarium. The automated water changer is not turned on over these tanks. Once each week I remove 50% of the water and replace it with reverse osmosis water. Each week the water will become a little softer, and a little more acidic.

The staple, everyday food for the breeding Apistogramma is live baby brine shrimp. Also feed my Ted’s Most Excellent gel food every other day, and live black worms once or twice each week.

My method to lowering the pH is to let it happen naturally in the aquarium. In my experience, this takes some time, and old, well-established tanks will maintain a more consistently lower pH. So I rarely start over on tanks for breeding apistos. I just let the humus in the tank build up. I do remove some of the mulm and clean the filters, but I never give the tanks a really thorough scrubbing.

The pH is not going to be significantly reduced in your aquariums unless the buffering capacity of the water, which is measured as KH or carbonate hardness, is very low. This is why, if you have hard alkaline water, a reverse osmosis filter or other source of very soft water is necessary to really get serious about breeding lots of soft water cichlids. Not all species need the low pH, but many of them do.

I do a 50% water change on my breeding tanks once each week. Between water changes the tannins in the tank can build up to make the water look like dark iced tea. When the leaves stop staining the water this dark, I know that it is time to add new leaves.

The last thing to mention is the interactions between dwarf cichlids and other fish. Dither fish are important to help cichlids feel more comfortable and to give them some targets to attract their attention. I like to use small tetras or pencil fish as dithers. Here is a tank with Nannostomus mortenthaleri, the coral red pencil type 1 as a dither. This tank has candelita tetras, a nano species from Peru. Here is the other coral red pencil, Nannostomus rubrocaudatus. This is Nannostomus beckfordi, which is probably my favorite dither, because it is hardy and inexpensive.

Interactions with other cichlids are also important, but when keeping the pairs in small tanks, the results of those interactions can be lethal. Having a row of aquariums side by side can help. I try to keep cichlids of the same species, or at least in the same species group, in adjacent tanks where they can see each other through the glass. The fish will display and spar with each other through the glass without being able to actually fight.

Using a mirror every now and then can also substitute for interaction between cichlids, but the trick can grow old if it is used to often. I use ‘mirror therapy’ infrequently, no more than once or twice each week, and only with pairs that I am trying to trigger to spawn because they have been reluctant to get down to business. I leave the mirror in for about 20 minutes, or until the fish stop flaring at their reflection. Mirror therapy sessions are great opportunities for taking photographs or videos.

In my experience, consistency is the key to success for breeding apistos, except when whatever you are doing in the tank is not working. Healthy dwarf cichlids that are in good condition should spawn readily, so when a good-looking pair does not spawn after a few weeks, I start to change things up. The only sure fire way to NOT be successful spawning fish is to do the same thing that is not working over and over again.

That is how I set up a tank to breed soft water dwarf cichlids. Now let’s take a look at a few of the species that I currently working with.

Apistogramma allpahuayo – the Peru black-chin

Apistogramma allpahuayo is a cacatuoides-group apisto that can be found in bottomland swamps in northern Peru. These black chins are exported as the ‘yellow’ variety, but I collected these myself during my trip to Peru last August. There are other varieties available, and I am working with three of them. This is the variety from the Rio Tigre. They are still quite young, but the females are already sparring for dominance. This was imported as Apistogramma allpahuayo ‘blue’, and it is a very pretty type. I think that it looks a lot like the Rio Tigre form, however, and I am not sure exactly where it comes from in Peru.

Apistogramma sp. ‘schwarzkehl’

The black-throat dwarf cichlid is an undescribed species from Colombia, that was exported to me as another species. I think this is a very pretty apisto, but I only held back one trio to work with. Of the two females in the tank, one is clearly dominant, and the other is serving as a target, but the pair has not tried to kill her. I have gotten fry from this pair once, but they were eaten. Hopefully they will spawn again soon.

Apistogramma sp. Kelleri

This cichlid is one of the two mouth brooding species that we know of. Kelleri is still undescribed. It is a larger species, and I have seen males that are pushing 5”. I have had this pair for a year, and have seen the female guarding eggs several times, but I have never seen her hold the larvae in her mouth. I recently moved them to a larger aquarium, and have not seen a spawn yet, though today the female is showing spawning colors and trying to get the male to enter the cave. Maybe they will spawn soon.

Apistogramma cf. leulingi

This pair of apistos are not wild caught fish. I received fry from a friend who brought the original pair back from southern Peru a couple years ago. The experts say that this is not the true A. leulingi, but it is certainly very similar. This is a very pretty member of the cacatuoides group. This is the shyest apisto in my collection, and getting a glimpse of the pair usually requires the use a this mirror.

Apistogramma aggasizii ‘Rio Tapiche’

The aggie from the Rio Tapiche in Peru is my favorite variety from that country. The males are a spectacular green and blue in the body, with a yellow chin and breast and red dorsal. I just got these about a month ago, and just got them set up. I have a pair with a large male, and a group of younger fish that I hope to get two pairs out of. This is one of the smaller males. The largest male would not cooperate for the camera.

Apistogramma baenschi – the Inka apisto

Inka is a popular species in the nijsseni-group. The males are large, robust fish with red-blue bodies and bright orange-yellow dorsal fins that are tall and highly serrated. The females are bright yellow with black bumblebee stripes. This very showy cichlid is relatively easy to spawn.

Those are a few of the Apistogramma that I am working with. There are others, and I will share more of them with you when I make the update on this breeding project.

There are a lot of good resources for information about Apistogramma and other dwarf cichlids. Two of my favorites are the Mergus Atlas books by Dr. Uwe Romer. These books describe many species of dwarf cichlids from all over South America, and cover information about their habitat and husbandry.

Let’s try something a little different with this video… If you have a video posted on YouTube featuring an Apistogramma, paste a link to it in the comment section. I would like to see the fish that you are keeping. If you do not have a video to post, but still want to share your experiences with keeping or breeding Apistos, please feel free to comment here or on my blog site, where you will find the complete transcript from this video.

Please subscribe to my Youtube channel… Thank you for watching… TedsFishroom.

4 Replies to “Breeding Project: Apistogramma”

  1. Ted,
    This video is Great. You mention the lower Ph many time in the video but never say exactly what your goal is? The Oak leaves are something I would have never thought of.
    Thanks
    John Wilkins

  2. Wonderful article/video Ted. I really like this series.

    I can only add a little bit of info that I have learned with experience.

    1. Frozen Mysis is a great conditioning food. (In addition to what you mentioned). I have gotten many apisto species in spawning condition just by using that.

    2. In my experience, some apistos need to be a little bit crowded to breed.
    Obviously, small tanks like you use work that way. When I first started, I had a pair of apistos in a 4 foot long tank. They didn’t breed until I put a divider in there and shrunk their living space. I had another case where I had a pair in a 20 long and a trio in another 20 long. Nothing happened, until I put all 5 in the same 20 long. Now naturally, you have to watch out for aggression as you say in your video, but the point is, a bigger tank isn’t necessarily better. So this can be something to “Change up”. Now of course, my experiences may be a pure coincidence, I am not an expert by any means.

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