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Spawning the Paratilapia sp. "Andapa"

by George J. Reclos

Dedicated to Jean-Claude Nourissat and Patrick de Rham

My first intention was to entitle this report as "After Many a Summer" (after the novel of Aldus Huxley) but then I decided to use a more "formal" one. I will start with the notes I wrote last August, when I had the experience of a failed spawning attempt myself, followed by a similar failure by Francesco and Nikos Balaskas. It serves as a perfect introduction since there is very little that I would change in this text. Except one thing. This time the pair just made it. No artificial hatching, no help at all, they just did it their way and gave me the opportunity of watching it since they chose to lay their eggs in the open space (especially helpful if you want to take some pictures of the whole event). Let's get back to August first.. (for information and photos of this species at various ages, see here).

08/08/2003: One of the females is ready to spawn again. This time it is in the 1300 liter tank so removing the eggs (overoptimistic?) may be quite difficult. As usually, the female is now the darkest fish in the tank with the characteristic yellow tip on the edge of its dorsal fin, while there is strong evidence now that I have 3 more females and 4 males in that tank. I assumed this based on the reactions of the female against the other P. polleni. Whenever another female approaches her "she" will immediately display in the usual cichlid manner and chase it. When a male is present she will just stay calm. Of course, the males in my tank will have a very difficult time. The dominant male is much larger than the rest so, if they insist in courting her a bit more than allowed, they may have serious problems. The 1300 liter tank has a lot of rocks, too much wood and many plants. Moreover there is a deep (more than 10 cm) sand bed at the bottom so they can dig as much as they want to. Although I am not an expert, it seems to me that the darkening of the color and the appearance of the yellow edge on the dorsal fin could be regarded as a sign that a particular female is ready to spawn. The black coloration is so intense that hides the tilapia spot completely even in close inspection. The fish may go in and out of the nuptial dress for a couple of days and then will keep it continuously for 1-2 more days till it spawns with the chosen male. This finding may be changed when more experience is acquired - from me or other hobbyists.

A view of the tank as it looks now (curtain filtered sunlight in the back of the tank). The stones have been placed in such a way to create as many crevices and caves as possible. The bogwood and vine tree pieces are placed on top of the rock formation to create even more hiding spots. There are many Vallisneria gigantea plants in the tank which create a somewhat more natural effect. Stay tuned. I may (just may) have some more things next time !

Some notes on the spawning of Paratilapia polleni - October 2003

Most authors state that their Paratilapia polleni spawned when the male female reached 18 cm of length or more while the female had reached 12 cm of length or more. Moreover, all or almost all of the successful spawning accounts were reported in large outdoor ponds (measuring thousands of liters) or very large aquaria which are rarely seen in homes. Sam Bacchini, a hobbyist from USA, was the first to report (March 2003) a successful spawn of much smaller fish (male: 10 cm; female 8 cm) in the confinements of a small densely planted aquarium (75 liters). The idea behind this seemed to be that the dense vegetation offered the P. polleni the feeling of security which allowed them to perform the act of spawning. This means that aquarium size may not be the critical factor but the aquascape of the tank may be the one. Since those fishes have been reported by J-C Nourissat and Patrick de Rham to breed in nature at a much smaller size (8-10 cm) all this made sense. We can now report that Sam Bacchini was absolutely right and he was reporting what is normal for this fish. We have three reports of successful spawns in small aquaria by fish measuring 10-12 cm (males) and 7-8 cm (females). All the tanks were small and densely planted or had many hiding places. More specifically, my tank was an 100 liter tank in which light could rarely hit the bottom due to the dense vegetation which included large portions of Ceratophyllum demersum on the surface. My P.polleni pair spawned in the darkest place of the tank and the female transferred the eggs later in a pit which was almost invisible (April 2003). Unfortunately, the eggs were eaten the day after. Fish of the same brood (and size) spawned two months later in the densely planted, 60 liter tank of Nikos Balaskas as seen in the photos here. The female laid the eggs behind an Anubia sp. and fanned them for the first 24 hours. However, the eggs were not removed and were consumed a day after. At about the same time (October 2003), Francesco reported from Rome an empty pit in his P.polleni tank in which fishes of the same brood were also kept. As he was attending the AFC show in Vichy at that time the tank was unattended for three days, enough for the fish to spawn and then eat the eggs. The characteristic of this particular tank is the absence of almost any human presence since it was maintained once a week while the feeding was done automatically and many hiding places due to clever aquascaping. With the exception of Francesco, all the others (Sam, Nikos and I) have placed a number of P.polleni in those tanks and losses were not avoided. Sam's pair killed the other two fishes, Niko's pair killed two of them while one more had to be returned to me severely harassed and I myself experienced the loss of two fishes. The difficulty of determining the sexes in fishes at this size and age poses a problem and may invariably lead to losses. Finally, in most cases (with the exception of Sam's spawn) the eggs were eaten the day after by the young parents. Thus, artificial hatching is highly recommended when you attempt to use this approach to spawn them.

If we are allowed to reach a conclusion, this would be that P. polleni may spawn at a much younger age than previously thought and they can do this in rather small tanks in which only the pair lives. Dense vegetation creates a security feeling which might well be what this species needs. In this case, the successful spawns in large ponds could be a result of the "isolation" of the fish and not of sheer size. If this conclusion is true, then more and more aquarists could be successful in spawning this extremely beautiful fish in their aquaria, thus this point could well worth something. It should be noted that although successful spawns were observed with members of the same brood in small tanks (60-125 liters), no spawning activity has been observed yet by their brothers and sisters in much larger tanks (750 and 1300 liters). Of course, those tanks don't have the kind of dense vegetation that can be created in a smaller tank. After I finished writing down those notes I decided to send it to my mentor, Patrick de Rham. His response was as follows:

"Now I have read more at leisure your note on Paratilapia breeding and as far as this piece is concerned, I don’t think you should change much to it. There is no doubt that Paratilapia can begin to breed at a much smaller size than their final adult size. We have also observed this both in nature and in the aquarium/pond. In fact I even have the impression that at least in the aquarium, young pairs breed more readily than older pairs. I have also reached the same conclusion with other cichlids such as the Peruvian Tahuantinsuyoa macantzatza. However, as you have unfortunately found out, in the aquarium, even these young pairs usually eat their eggs before they hatch. The success of Sam Bacchini  is fairly exceptional, but other successful aquarium breeding, with the parents left to look after their young, had already been reported previously. In fact the first report of a successful breeding of P. polleni occurred in the 80’s in Marseille and also took place in a rather dark and secluded aquarium.

However, I think the size of the tank also has its importance as in Jean-Claude’s large ponds, which are often completely bare, but for a few tiles and flower pots, if the temperature is right, that is above 25°C, an introduced pair of Paratilapia will usually spawn within 10 days and the parents will look after their eggs, larvae and free swimming young, usually without any problem and in fact defend fiercely their young against all other fishes and humans! But in a large volume of water, or probably more important, over a large bottom surface, the other fish will usually not get hurt as they are kept by the male 2 meters away from the young. I have put forward the hypothesis that in an aquarium the male has for lack of space to stay too close to the eggs and that this stresses the female, which ends up eating the eggs. In a pond or nature, while the female is in charge of the close care and defense of the eggs and young, the male stays usually at a distance of about 1 meter away and assumes the peripheral defense against the “enemies”. Mind you this would probably also explain, why the occasional successful breeding in aquarium, usually takes place in well-planted tanks. The female doesn’t see all the time the male and is less stressed. ."

Well, following Patrick's comments, I am more optimistic about breeding them.. I hope this will help others, too. There is always a place for this remarkable fish in the market. And now it is time to come to this year..

February  - May 2004 - the dream comes true. As Patrick said in his comment above, "young pairs breed more readily than older pairs, at least in the aquarium". This is - perhaps - the key to success. During the last three months, I have watched three spawning attempts by one of my Paratilapia polleni large spot which were given to me by Jean-Claude Nourissat and Patrick de Rham in Vichy (October 2003).  Some words about those fishes which may be helpful to other hobbyists. The ten specimens I carried back home from France were separated in 3 tanks, each holding 110 liters of water. Each tank had a length of 80 cm and was placed with the narrow side facing me so the fishes had 80 cm to hide if they wanted to. In all tanks a bogwood formation was created at the center practically dividing the tank in two parts. The bogwood formation offered some hiding places while the back of the tank was not visible by us (neither could the fish see us - thus creating the feeling of "safety" for them). Two tanks hold four of them while the third one only held two of them. According to a theory the sex of these fishes is not decided when born but a later stage so I thought that if they grew in three different tanks, my chances of getting at least three pairs would be better. Indeed, after spending 6 months in these tanks it was apparent that I had three males which had rapidly grown from 4-5 cm to 14-15 cm. During the 7th month it became obvious that one pair (at least) had formed in each tank. In all cases there was a "huge" male spending the whole day next to a much smaller female (7-8 cm). In the tanks housing four P.polleni the remaining two fishes spent all the time in the back of the tank rarely showing up (usually just to eat and always in a rush). It should be noted that in those tanks the pair always preferred the front part of the tank - perhaps controlling what was going on - in and out of the tank. The first pair to show some spawning activity was the lonely one since the pairs in the other tanks were too busy making sure the remaining two fishes always stayed at the rear half of the tank. The maintenance schedule was the same for all tanks and consisted of 3-4 feedings daily (commercial food on a daily basis and frozen shrimps and mussels once a week), an airstone and an external canister filter. One water change (50% of the water) was performed once a week with the final temperature always being 2oC lower than the initial one. The temperature of the water was around 26-27oC.

The lonely pair (male size approximately 14 cm, female 8 cm) spawned three times (in February and March 2003) but the eggs were eaten by the pair after 24 hours. I was very optimistic when suddenly every spawning activity stopped and the female was hiding during most of the day. Two months passed and nothing changed. I have my own theory for this which suggests that young Paratilapia polleni will readily spawn in a tank sized 20-30 gallons (properly aquascaped as already discussed and preferably without any tankmates) but they will not do it many times. There is an extremely short window and, after this opportunity passes, then the fish will not spawn until they grow up in which case they definitely need a pond or a very large tank. There has never been any spawning activity by the adult P.polleni (aged about 2 years) in the 1300 liter tank which supports this hypothesis. Therefore, once this pair stopped all spawning activities, I decided to use a new pair for my next attempt. In short, I believe that you have to give it a try while the fish are still young. Waiting too long may be just "too" long. In my experience the right size of the two types of Paratilapia polleni at which they may start spawning activities differs a lot and is "proportional" to their final adult size. Thus, while the small spot variety showed the first signs when the male was about 10-12 cm and the female 6-7 cm (total length), the large spot variety showed the same signs when the males were sized 14-15 cm and the females about 7-8 cm. I think it is important to note that once they start spawning and they are successful they will go on doing it like any American cichlid, which means once every 40 days or thereabout (this note was added in October 2004 after 5 successful spawnings of this particular pair).

The new pair had already been formed in one of the other tanks but the large male was too occupied to keep the other males away from his female so there was no actual spawning activity. All you could see was the two fishes staying side by side under the bogwood all day long. You can see some pictures of this pair in their first tank. It was obvious that they needed to be alone. The pair was removed from the 110 liter tank and was placed in an 140 liter tank with lots of bogwood which kept them completely isolated from their surrounding. Two days later they had spawned and - to my surprise - the eggs were laid in the open space. This allowed me to observe the whole procedure and take notes (and many pictures as you can see - you can click on the images to get the high resolution pictures).

I removed some of the eggs and placed them in a net breeding nest but I hesitated to add methylene blue as this would affect the biological filtration of the tank and the female seemed really dedicated in fanning them. I knew I would have one more shot if this attempt went wrong (the pairs seem to spawn 2-3 times at this size) so I decided to leave the female to do the job alone. The eggs in the nest were covered with fungus two days later and were discarded, since it was evident that the little lady knew exactly what she was doing and she was doing it perfectly well. Note at this point : always add methylene blue when trying to hatch the eggs artificially. It is obvious that strong aeration alone is not enough. I don't know what the female does apart from fanning, but it seems that picking foreign objects away from the eggs (something she does all the time) is also a key factor to avoid fungus. Since all the eggs in the nest were covered by fungus and none of the eggs she was taking care of showed any signs of it, "unfertilized eggs" is not a valid hypothesis.

In the first 24 hours she was really busy fanning the eggs and she tried to keep all the eggs together. Eggs that were carried away from the main spawning site by the water current were repeatedly "chewed" in an attempt to "glue" them again to the main core of eggs. After of 3-4 unsuccessful attempts, the female would eat the eggs, something already reported by Uwe Werner in his article. As long as the eggs eaten this way were just a tiny portion of the eggs laid, I was not worried. The eggs were off white / beige and seemed to be well over 200. Additionally, they seemed to be uniformly colored and not transparent hence it was not possible to see any formations inside them (see the two photos above and the picture below for more detail). There was a more "dense" part at one end of each egg which seemed to me like fungus at the beginning but thankfully it wasn't. The eggs were laid on a rock covered with dense brown algae. I really don't know what made the pair choose this particular spot but this is another occasion supporting my view about non "sterile" tanks. Perhaps the dark background made it easier for the female to remove any foreign particles from her eggs.

The female would not allow the male to get close to the eggs throughout the fanning period. Despite the huge difference in size (the male is about 12 cm while the female is barely 8) she was determined to keep the male away from the eggs at all times. This was achieved either by attacking the male or gently biting its anal fin. In all cases (see pictures below) she was placing her body between the male and the eggs, something which seemed very "feminine" to me. The male had the brown coloration while the female had the same coloration when away from the eggs which turned into the marvelous deep black when fanning them. It was really difficult to go and get some sleep since I was always afraid that next morning there would be no eggs - as usually. However, this time, the little lady was really determined to bring this thing to the end. At the end of the first day, the eggs had become transparent which made me more optimistic (anything which doesn't look like fungus is a good sign) - see photos below. It should be noted that this was the first time I saw the Paratilapia polleni digging and creating a shallow crater or pit. Since this was done after the eggs were laid I presumed it was a preparation of the place the hatched eggs would be moved afterwards. This was further supported by the fact that after a while the female tried more spots. However, for those of you who have planted tanks this should be taken into account. To me, spawning them is far more important than any planted tank, but I am sure that there are those who think in a different way.

At the end of the 48 hour period I saw the female "chewing" the eggs (which were now transparent and a fish like formation was visible inside them) and then transferring them in a plastic cheese box which was placed in the tank to keep my bamboo plants in place. You could only see part of her tail as she got in the box again and again. The eggs started hatching at about 48 hours (first visits to the cheese box) and the last ones hatched at about 60 hours after spawning. The temperature of the water was 27.1oC, pH: 7.8, GH:8, KH:8, NH3, NO2- and NO3- not detectable. I performed a 50% water change before transferring the pair in this tank (the 10 Paretroplus maculatus which lived in this tank were transferred to their new 700 liter tank the day before) to be sure that the water conditions were optimal. I only fed sparingly since this always stressed the female. Every time the male was trying to eat pellets close to her eggs she would stop anything she might be doing and placed her body between his mouth and her eggs (see photos above). Patrick was right again: the male in close proximity is always stressful to the mother. On the other hand she enjoys the fact that the male is patrolling in the tank therefore I guess that removing the male is a controversial issue. Perhaps, being alone in the tank, would be even more stressful for the female.

Following that, the female spent the next days patrolling over the cheese box occasionally entering it to see if things were still OK. All you could see was her tail while sometimes she would disappear in the box and stay there for some seconds. Hovering over this box was the major activity during this time. Unfortunately, the box is quite deep and placed almost next to the front glass so it was impossible to take any pictures. Since the Paratilapia polleni are notorious egg eaters I didn't want to press my luck. The little female had done a remarkable job up to this point so I decided that I had to respect that. As a side effect, I could not be sure if there were any fry in that box anymore. The only thing that made me optimistic is that she would keep the male at a distance and I guess that the (much larger) male would not tolerate such a behavior if there were no fry in the box. Time passes very slowly when you have to wait. Those four days were perhaps the longest days in my fish keeping experience. You can't do anything, actually you don't even know if everything is OK - all you can do is hope. As far as Paratilapia polleni females are concerned this one seems to be the exception rather than the rule, even more so if you take into account that this was her first time.

Although everything was seemingly OK, I started to worry again after the 6th day post spawning. The little mother was still getting in and out of her cheese box, but there was nothing we could see. Usually you expect to see a cloud of fry following the mother but this was definitely not the case. Since the last thing we wanted was to stress her more, we didn't try to get a closer look at that cheese box. Finally, on day 7, after discussing it with Francesco and Johnny (no decisions are made without getting his approval !) we decided to take a closer look and, if any fry was still there, remove one third to raise it separately. The rest would stay with the parents as a reward for being a perfect pair. Francesco emphasized the fact that normally he uses to remove the fry between 24-48 hours post hatching to avoid heavy losses which usually occur after this time frame. Although we usually remove the P.managuensis fry on the 10th day, we decided to follow his moto "better safe than sorry". The whole operation took less than 5 minutes. First, we removed the Lemna minor from the surface and - what a joy !! - there they were, about 100 of them, packed in their cheese box. While wondering which would be the least stressful way of removing them, we noticed a good number of fry swimming out of the box, too! We chose a tube with a medium diameter (to avoid a very high water flow but large enough to allow all the fry through it without hitting the walls). The fry was transferred in a pre-cleaned plastic container and transferred in the new tank which was already setup and running for this purpose. They were placed in a net breeding nest and left in peace for the first day (see photo below). We finally removed about 1/3rd of the fry (about 30 fish, which is enough to share with some good friends). We know that the risk of losing the rest is great but we would also like to see the pair raising them. They have done an excellent job up to now so there is hope they will keep on doing just that. Apart from that, removing a small portion of the fry has one advantage. The pair (especially the female) didn't seem to notice the missing fry which was proved by the fact that immediately after we left the tank she resumed normal activities. The male was now allowed to come closer to the famous box, while the female would continuously check the tank for escaped fry and take them back in the box. It should be noted that taking away all the fry will definitely result in a larger name of surviving fry but on the other hand this may create a tricky situation for the mother. It is generally believed that when less than 20% of the fry survive, the whole spawning is regarded as a "failure" and the pair will not take care of them. In some cases the male may also turn against the female. The huge difference in size given this means a very hard (if not fatal) situation for the female. Therefore, since nobody really needs 100 P. polleni fry it may be a good thing to leave a portion of the brood with the pair. This is only true for a pair which knows what to do. If you have already have a pair which have had a breakfast with its eggs, it may be better to remove them once laid and try to raise them artificially. It seems that removing the eggs at such a very early stage will not pose any problems for the female. I discussed this with Patrick de Rham and Sonia Guinane who supported the same view so there they stay ! After all, you have to listen to the experts...

The fry we can see are the ones that were removed in the net breeding nest. Once in a while we can also see some fry in the tank housing the parents. The female is keeping them out of sight most of the time. The photo above shows the fry after their removal from the parent tank. They fry are fed 5 times daily with fine powder food and liquifry. The photos below were shot one week after their removal. You may see a high resolution picture by clicking on the images below.

I will add a last photo in this report. A photo which makes me admire and love this little mother. As you can see in the photo below (click on it to see the high resolution picture), she is still trying to keep all the fry in that cheese box of hers, despite their urge to swim in the open water. Every time a young one makes it out of the box, she will take it in the mouth and get it back in. Sometimes the fry are allowed a short tour around the cheese box while she hovers over them. Cichlids never cease to surprise me. In this aspect, the P.polleni seems to be somewhat different than the central American cichlids which don't keep their fry grouped for such a long time (6 days after they became free swimming). In the photo below, you can see one of her fry in front of her mouth. The young rebel was returned at the bottom of the box in less than a second. We also had the opportunity to see the father doing the baby sitting for some seconds. I can tell you one thing. He did his job but he didn't have even a fraction of the charm of the female. Very clumsy - he looked as  if he had no idea what to do with his fry. 

A short list of the highlights of this report would include the following points:

1) The P.polleni can spawn when they reach a size less than half their final adult size. 2) This will be done some times and then they will stop and start again when they reach adulthood - or at least a much larger size (Uwe Werner reports 18 cm for the male). This is even more so if their first attempts are not successful 3) They need to feel safe which means either a planted tank or a formation of bogwood or other stuff which will offer them a place to stay away from your sightline (better still: they want you to be out of theirs). 4) They need a species tank without any other tankmates at this age. 5) The tank may be as small as 20 gallons (70 liters) or as large as 40 gallons (140 liters) for a male sized up to 16 cm (TL) and a female up to 8 cm (TL). The larger tank will allow some vital space for the female which is stressed when the male stays close to the eggs. 6) No matter how good the mother is (or seems to be), you better take some of the fry away to be sure.

Now that this is over, I have one small confession to make. I am relieved, happy and sad. I have kept and spawned many species up to now but this species was always something "different". It was given to me by Jean-Claude Nourissat himself, less than a month before learning the news of his tragic loss. In my mind, spawning them, was an obligation. The longer it took the more of an obsession it became. This is why I am relieved. Spawning one more species always makes me happy. However, now that this "mission" is accomplished, I feel a bit sad and "empty". You see, I can't do what I always wanted to do. Send him an e-mail telling him, with my poor French that he always seemed to understand, the great news...

Continued in next page

Uwe Werner (translated by Mary Bailey): "Paratilapia - Fabulously beautiful cichlids from Madagascar", in Cichlid News ( www.cichlidnews.com ), 12(1), p. 29-33, 2003. The original article appeared in "Cichlidae" the journal of the Dutch Cichlid Association. This article contains useful information about breeding this beautiful "Jurassic Park" cichlid.

The book entitled "The Endemic Cichlids of Madagascar" by Patrick de Rham and Jean - Claude Nourissat is now available in English. Click here to find out how to order and here to read the back cover page of the English edition.

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