(This article was originally published in Cichlid News Magazine, Oct-97 pp. 18-22, It is reproduced here with the permission of author Lee Newman).
An aquarium picture of an adult male of the Christmas fulu, Haplochormis (Xystichromis) phytophagus in full breeding dress. Photo by Paul V. Loiselle.
The haplochromines of the Lake Victoria basin have become popular cichlids for the home aquarium. This popularity is reliably fueled by their brilliant coloration, constant activity, and the ease with which they are propagated. There is, however, another reason their popularity should be encouraged. The degraded condition and uncertain future of their natural environs in East Africa suggest that we may not be able to rely on regular importations of wild fishes to supplement our hobby. At present, some species of fulu (=haplochromines) from the Lake Victoria basin have become available to home aquarists, as a result of tropical fish export from Uganda and institutional conservation efforts by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. One of these species is Haplochromis (Xystichromis) phytophagus, now extinct in Lake Victoria but common in Lake Kanyaboli, an associated "satellite lake" in the Yala Swamp of northern Kenya (Loiselle, 1996a).
Commonly referred to as the Christmas fulu due to its brilliant breeding dress, H. (X.) phytophagus is a medium-sized haplochromine with males reaching a total length of approximately 11.4 cm (4.5 inches) with females remaining a bit smaller. Given its size and comportment (described below), H. phytophagus is an easily housed cichlid. A small breeding group can be safely kept in a 110-150 liters (~30-40 gal) tank, provided adequate shelter is available to the females. Having said this, the smallest aquarium in use at the Vancouver Aquarium for a colony of breeding program fish is 270 liters (~72 gallons). This size allows for an even larger colony consisting of two males and as many as eight females to coexist without excess aggression.
The key to a relatively peaceful community is abundant shelter in the form of bogwood and rocks. I prefer to use bogwood, as much more can be placed in an aquarium without fear of cracking the bottom of the tank or having the fish's digging activities seriously compromise the stability of the shelter. Shelters should be arranged to obscure the sight line (for the fish!) from end to end in the tank. In this way the males will tend to form smaller territories, as areas "out of sight" are more difficult to defend.
There are many plants that work well with H. phytophagus. Perhaps the best choice is hornwort (Ceratophyllum sp.), a species which grows well under good light and can be allowed to cover most of the surface area of the aquarium and form dense clumps around the shelters. This arrangement would represent the fish's natural habitat reasonably well and also be functional in terms of natural behavior by moderating male aggression and providing refugia for brooding females. The substratum in such a set-up need not be anything special. These fish do very well with either sand or gravel as long as the size allows the male to dig courtship and spawning pits.
According to Loiselle (1996a), the water parameters recorded during a field trip to the Yala Swamp were: pH 7.5-8.2; carbonate hardness 6-7 dH; and temperature 25-33° C (77-92° F). Fortunately, H. phytophagus is very adaptable to water chemistries different from these values, evidenced by normal growth and somewhat enthusiastic reproduction in the soft, generally neutral pH water of the Vancouver Aquarium's tropical freshwater system. They are, however, quite sensitive to the accumulation of nitrate. This can be avoided by combining generous plant growth with weekly 25% water changes and proper filter maintenance.
Filtration in a Christmas fulu aquarium need not be a marvel of engineering. The 270 liters (~72-gal) aquaria used in our program are each equipped with two box filters packed with a small amount of crushed coral gravel for pH control and 2-3 layers of filter floss. This system works well due to low stocking densities and removal of brooding females, preventing unregulated increases in the breeding population in the tank. Given somewhat higher stocking densities in home aquaria, an outside power filter would be a reasonable substitution, or addition, for the filtration described above.
The easiest aspect of keeping the Christmas fulu is feeding them. According to Loiselle (1996b), H. phytophagus consumes decomposing papyrus and sedge leaves in the Yala Swamp. This plant material passes through the fish intact, suggesting that it is the microscopic community of animals on the plant debris that the fulu use as food. In aquaria they enthusiastically consume all flake and pellet foods offered. Contrary to their name, H. phytophagus is not an avid plant eater in captivity with the possible exception of soft-leaved plants and new growth of other plants. However, the diet should include a flake or pellet food containing Spirulina to curtail any plant grazing. Aside from the prepared fare, these fish will eagerly accept frozen bloodworms, finely chopped earthworms, and small frozen or freezed-dried shrimps (Mysis or Euphasia). They are very exuberant feeders and correspondingly generate a great deal of wastes, so keep a careful watch on the water quality.
Perhaps the only thing easier that feeding fulu is breeding them. While these polygamous maternal mouthbrooders are rather easily-bred cichlids, minimizing male aggression and getting fry from the effort requires a bit of planning. First, there should only be one or two males in any aquarium under 190 liters (50 gallons) in size, combined with as many as 5-7 females (provided with the aforementioned shelter). Second, a brooding female needs to be able to find a quiet space secluded from the rest of the colony. Under good conditions, a male will quickly establish its dominance within the colony. The dominant male can be recognized by an increase in the intensity of his colors. As with many other Victorian haplochromines, there is a marked tendency (at least in a domestic setting) for older, very large males to become almost uniformly black (Loiselle, pers. comm.). The dominant male will actively chase any other males and unripe females from the area in which he has chosen to dig a courting and spawning pit. Any other males present without space to establish their own territories will assume a subdued color pattern and stay away from the territory of the dominant male.
Once a pit has been dug, the male will actively court ripe females with lateral displays in the pit area. A visibly distended abdomen can easily identify a ripe female. If a female is ready to spawn she will follow the male into the pit. The male will then press his splayed anal fin with its bright eggspots against the bottom of the pit, enticing the female to begin spawning. Within a short time the female will begin to lay eggs which are picked up immediately. The female also attempts to pick up the eggspots on the male's anal fin, which is when the male releases sperm to fertilize the eggs in the female's mouth. Spawning typically lasts for 30-45 minutes with young females laying about 30 eggs whereas an older one might release up to 70.
An aquarium picture of a male Haplochromis (Xyxtichromis) phytophagus in sexually active coloration. Photo by Paul V. Loiselle.
A ripe female Haplochromis (Xystichromis) phytophagus. Photo by Paul V. Loiselle.
When spawning has been completed, the female leaves (or is chased from the pit area) to seek a quiet place to begin the 14-16 day buccal incubation period. During this time the female does not eat and tries to stay clear of the rest of the colony. The male, on the other hand, begins courting the next available female.
If one wishes to obtain fry in quantity from such efforts, the female should be removed from the breeding colony. It is best to wait until very near the end of the incubation period to move a brooding female. This is done for two reasons. First, fulu females seem less likely to spit fry in the later stages of incubation, and second, if they are spit during the move, the advanced development of the fry will increase their chances of surviving without further buccal incubation. The female should be caught in a fine mesh net in the event the fry are released. If the fry are spit out, simply release the female back into the breeding aquarium and then transfer the fry to a smaller tank prepped for rearing. Females immediately returned to the community tank usually fare well as long as there is adequate shelter.
In the event that a female holds onto the fry during the transfer, the aquarist has two options. First, the female can be placed in a previously prepared brooding aquarium where the fry will be released more or less on schedule. The second option is to "strip" the female of her fry. There are several techniques that reliably produce satisfactory results. What follows is a brief description of the method used at the Vancouver Aquarium. The female is carefully captured in a fine-mesh net suspended in the breeding aquarium. The female is then grasped in one (wet) hand and held head-down over the net. With the other (wet) hand, the female's mouth is carefully opened as her head is placed in the water. At this point the fry swim from the female's mouth; a quick inspection will determine whether further effort is required to remove all the fry. After releasing all the fry, the female can either be returned to the breeding colony or held in another tank for "reconditioning."
Upon initial release fry are mobile and ready to begin feeding. They are easily reared on a diet of newly hatched Artemia nauplii and crushed flakes. Like most fry, rearing problems can be minimized with a regular program of water changes and filter maintenance. Fry of the program fish at the Vancouver Aquarium start off in a 75 liters (~20-gal) tank and are moved to a 270 (~72 gal) tank as they grow. Often, the first sign an aquarist gets that the juveniles are ready to be sold or traded is the presence of a courting male in the rearing tank! Be warned, they start early!
For the aquarist interested in setting up a representative Victorian community, there are other fish species that can be included in the aquarium. For "open water" areas, Brycinus sadleri, an abundant characoid in Lake Victoria, would add both color and movement. Other cichlids could include the dwarf mouthbrooder, Pseudocrenilabrus multicolor victoriae. Catfishes, such as Synodontis afrofisheri, are also found in the native habitats of fulu. Best excluded are larger predators such as the catfish, Clarias gariepinnis, and the lungfish, Protopterus aethiopicus.
Haplochromis phytophagus has all the aquarium "good points" of the typical haplochromine, as well as sharing common drawbacks. However, as long as one maintains a sex ratio skewed in favor of females and finds an outlet for extra males, breeding efforts are bound to succeed, and the Christmas fulu should prove rewarding for both novice and experienced aquarists.
The Lake Victoria Species Survival Plan (LV-SSP) of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums is limited in its ability to preserve many of the endangered taxa by the amount of space each of the participating institutions is able to allocate to the program. This being the case, any species that can be established in the hobby would enjoy greater prospects for long-term survival. This would in turn free up institutional space for species that are more endangered or less likely to be popular as ornamentals, as well as providing home aquarists with an opportunity to participate in the conservation of these cichlids.