A group of Paretroplus maculatus in the aquarium. Fish and Photo by Dave Tourle.
(This article was originally published in Cichlid News Magazine, Jul-01 pp. 12-15, It is reproduced here with the permission of author Sonia Guinane and Aquatic promotions).
The conservation status of these two extremely, attractive, closely related species from Madagascar is dire. Indeed, it is now believed that Paretroplus menarambo (Allgayer, 1997) may well be extinct in its' last known habitat, Lake Saradrano, where, in 1992, the fish was first discovered by Jean-Claude Nourissat and Patrick de Rham. There is always the slight hope that a few remaining populations may still exist in remote, outlying lakes in the Bemarivo/Sofia drainage, but unfortunately, according to Jean-Claude this possibility is highly unlikely. Thankfully, successful spawnings of captive P. menarambo have occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, which is very encouraging news and will hopefully, enable the species to continue to survive as part of various captive breeding programs, both in North America and Europe.
Our first encounter with Paretroplus menarambo, (which is also known to North American aquarists as the "Pin-stripe Damba"), was in 1997 at Bolton Museum Aquarium, which is located in the north of England. Six juveniles of this species, along with six juvenile Paretroplus nourissati, which were intended to be part of a Madagascan captive breeding program at Bolton, had recently arrived from Florida. These two species were of great interest to Dave and I and it was hoped that after any spawnings that might occur in the future, we would be able to take some of the fry. As it happened, we didn't have to wait that long as the following year, a pair of the P. menarambo spawned successfully at Bolton Aquarium and Dave and I took six of the juveniles as soon as they were large enough to travel. In October 1998, we collected the young P. menarambo from Bolton and while we were there, saw for the very first time, a group six wild caught sub-adult Paretroplus maculatus (Kiener & Mauge, 1966) that had just arrived from Jean-Claude Nourissat in France.
The young "Pin-stripes" had no problems with their long journey of 260 miles back to our home in Brighton, which is located on the south coast of England. They were initially housed in a 4'x12"x18" (45 US gallons) aquarium, which was filtered by an efficient, internal filtration system that is used in all of our tanks. The tank décor was similar to most of our other aquariums, a substrate of inert sand, rocks, driftwood and artificial aquarium plants. Dave and I had read that most Paretroplus species enjoy sifting the substrate in a similar way to some of their cichlid cousins from South America. After a very short time, we witnessed this and it was obvious that the six little "Pin-stripes" were really enjoying their new living quarters, sifting through the sand and browsing on the pieces of wood. The aquarium temperature was maintained at 26C (79F) and 25% weekly water changes were carried out. (Our local water has a pH of 7.7 and is alkaline and moderately hard). The fishes were offered a mixed diet of good quality, dried food, as well as frozen brineshrimp, bloodworm, mysis shrimp and daphnia. They ate everything that was offered to them and were obviously thriving. In their natural habitat in Madagascar, most Paretroplus species eat crustaceans and with their unicuspid teeth can clear aquarium snails in a matter of minutes.
The juvenile P. menarambo were about 5 cms (2") TL at this time and their coloration was a pale gold, with the horizontal rows of small black dots running along the side of the body already clearly visible. Some dark bars on the flanks would come and go, depending on their mood. All six fishes grew slowly, but steadily, so a larger aquarium would soon be required, with some suitable tankmates. Jean-Claude Nourissat had already advised Dave and I that Paretroplus species should, if at all possible, be maintained in shoals of a minimum of six fishes in a large aquarium. This was certainly good advice, as the P. menarambo were very argumentative with each other, even at this small size. We have subsequently heard from a few other aquarists who have started with four or less "Pinstripes" and ended up with just one, which is a real tragedy, given the precarious conservation status of this species!
An aquarium sized 60" x 24" x 24" (140 US gallons) was set up to house the six "Pinstripes", as well as a single "Pinstripe" (from a friend in the US), three juvenile Paretroplus petiti, one homegrown Paratilapia polleni "Small Spot", six Paretroplus kieneri and a mixed selection of catfish. We were hoped that this new regime would work, as it was the first time we had mixed any of our Paretroplus species together. Would there be any hybridisation once these juvenile fishes, all from the same genus, reached potential breeding size? As it later turned out, unlike some African and Central American cichlids, absolutely no hybridisation problems have ensued amongst our Paretroplus juveniles. However, Bolton Aquarium, who provided our original male P. kieneri with a home, were subsequently rewarded for their kindness to him, when he decided to spawn with a surplus female Paretroplus nourissati! Thankfully, none of the fry reached the freeswimming stage. We have since experienced an unexpected hybridisation between a male Ptychochromis sp "East Coast Grey" and a female Ptychochromis sp "Fort Dauphin", (who had temporarily been housed in the same tank) which resulted in viable fry, but none were raised.
Last summer, the Paretroplus setup was working well and the largest P. menarambo had reached about 14 cms (5") TL, with the size of the others not far behind. (When fully grown, this species can grow up to 25 cms (10") TL.) All of them had developed the overall attractive, adult bluish gray coloration at around 10cms (4"). This color, which varied from a blue/gray to an almost creamy white, was enhanced by bright red edging on the fins and the emarginate tail. This distinctive tail, which is to be found in other species in the Paretroplus genus, especially P. petiti, has caused aquarists to compare the appearance of all these fishes to that of the marine Surgeon fishes. Attractive, iridescent, pale blue/green coloration on the face, which is also present in the tail, anal and dorsal fins, gives the fish a unique elegance. Probably, the only other fish to display such presence is its' close relative, Paretroplus maculatus. I remember Dr. Paul Loiselle commenting about this during one of his Malagasy presentations and Dave and I are in complete agreement with what he said, following our observations of both species in our own aquariums.
We noticed two of the "Pinstripes" were spending time together and their coloration had changed considerably and although it is not possible to distinguish the sex of P. menarambo just on appearance, we were hopeful that a pair had formed. Both fishes had gone very pale, with black visible on the underside of the body and chin and a distinctive black line over the forehead between the eyes. The dark bars that were present in the juvenile fish had now become very obvious and the blue in the fins, tail and on the face intensified. The larger of the two fish displayed to the other, with his head down, vibrating his body at the same time and she responded in a similar way. (We have since seen exactly the same courtship ritual with our other Paretroplus species prior to spawning). The pair were concentrating their actions around a large limestone rock, with some excavation of the adjacent substrate and making sure that their tankmates kept their distance. I was lucky enough to witness the spawning and there was no attempt by the parents to eat their eggs, (pale pink in coloration!), which is an unfortunate trait amongst some other Madagascan cichlids species, like Paratilapia and also, Paretroplus nourissati. We decided to remove the eggs anyway for artificial hatching, but unfortunately the larvae did not develop properly and there was a repeat of this scenario when the pair spawned again later in the summer. We are hoping that this setback is just due to the parents immaturity and every attempt will be made to successfully raise some fry, should any of our P. menarambo decide to spawn again this year. Last year Bolton Aquarium had two more successful spawnings of P. menarambo and we now have another 10 juveniles that are growing on well.
Paretroplus maculatus, the "Pinstripe" Damba's closest relative, is another extremely endangered Malagasy cichlid species. Its once large range is now restricted to just a few lakes in the north west of Madagascar, where it can still be found in two lakes within the Ampijoroa Forestry region and also, Lake Ravelobe, where P. kieneri is also present. As I have already said, Dave and I first saw this most attractive fish with its distinctive large black shoulder spot at Bolton Aquarium. The overall coloration of the fish is a gold/green, which on closer inspection actually comprises intermittent vertical lines of these two colors. There is red edging on the emarginate tail and at the end of the dorsal fin, together with an area of faint black coloration visible on the first section of the tail, which becomes more obvious in courtship coloration. The anal and ventral fins are edged with black and P. maculatus also has a similar black line over the forehead between the eyes. They share the same elegant appearance of the P. menarambo, perhaps to an even greater degree.
A pair of Paretroplus menarambo spawning in the aquarium. Fish and Photo by Dave Tourle.
A few months after Dave and I first saw these gorgeous fishes at Bolton, there was a successful spawning, so once again, Dave and I travelled north and returned home with twelve juvenile P. maculatus. Another indication of their close relationship with the "Pinstripe" was the similar gold coloration of juveniles of both species, but it was significant that the P. maculatus did not show the dark bars. Unlike their cousins P. menarambo, they can reach 30 cms (12") TL and began to show the attractive adult coloration when they reached about 10 cms (4"). Their habits and behaviour in the aquarium were very similar to that of the "Pinstripes", but perhaps with slightly less aggression, possibly because there were more of them and it was therefore more difficult for one individual to be singled out. Last year, Dave and I were given four juvenile Paretroplus damii by Jean-Claude Nourissat, which were temporarily housed in a 30 US gallon tank, but after just two days, it was necessary to move them to another aquarium or we would have ended up with only one. The only tank with sufficient space was the 160 US gallon aquarium containing the P. maculatus and this combination of fishes is currently working very well, as the sheer number of the P. maculatus prevents the aggression of the P. damii from getting out of hand.
In the last few months some of the P. maculatus have been showing breeding coloration, which is an overall lightening on the body. There are faint black bars on the body, with black underneath the chin and body and along the anal and pelvic fins. The black line between the eyes and the black section on the tail are noticiably more intense. Two pairs have been observed defending definite areas, with the same courtship ritual as the "Pinstripe", but so far no actual spawnings have occurred, although two days ago, a single female laid some eggs on a rock. As the largest P. maculatus is about 16 cms (6") TL, Dave and I are hoping it is just a matter of time before there is a successful spawning.
As P. maculatus is so endangered and P. menarambo is probably extinct in its native habitat, it is an absolute necessity that captive breeding programs continue for all the threatened cichlid and other fish species from Madagascar.
A female Paretroplus menarambo guarding her eggs in the aquarium. Fish and Photo by Dave Tourle.