(This article was originally published in "Cichlid News magazine" Aquatic promotions, Vol. 11. No. 3, July 2002; pp. 30-34. It is here reproduced with the permission of author Dan Woodland and Aquatic Promotions).
Many Moons Ago.
I was first introduced to the lamprologine complex in 1987. Freshly married and living in a new apartment I badly wanted to get back into keeping cichlids as I had done in college. Walking through a local pet shop near our apartment I saw something I had never seen before, namely Lamprologus (now Neolamprologus) palmeri from Lake Tanganyika. I stood watching the fish for a few moments and then moved on, but every few minutes I kept returning to this same tank over and over. I couldn't get those cool looking cichlids out of my mind so I bought six of them. They were slender-bodied fish with light blue edging on the fins. The dorsal and anal were long and extended to a point. The tips of the caudal fin were also attenuated, forming a lyretail; the caudal fin extensions can be as long as the fish's standard body length (Konings and Dieckhoff, 1992). In Neolamprologus palmeri, a contrasting color on each scale gave them a distinctive "spotted" pattern on the flanks. A brightly-colored light blue eye and a pointed mouth with sharp teeth defined their heads. It was a very attractive fish. They looked and moved with such grace that I couldn't believe they were cichlids! Being a cichlid neophyte, I began to search for information on my new fish by looking in books and talking to hobbyists I met in the local cichlid club I had recently joined. Little did I know that I was well on my way to becoming one of those cichlidiots, as we now call ourselves. A cichlidiot does just about anything to obtain, maintain and breed members of this family of fish we call the Cichlidae. I couldn't believe my luck when I found that club's flier in the pet store while purchasing my new cichlids. I was astonished by the wealth of information people in the club possessed. I wish I knew then how involved I would get in keeping cichlids and all the varieties that were available!
I didn't find much specifically on cichlids in books with the exception of Axelrod's Rift Lake Cichlids (1979), where I learned about the formation of the great rift lakes of East Africa and some background on my new finny friends. I learned that Neolamprologus species were polygamists that breed in groups, laying their eggs in cracks and crevices among the rocks. I also read they were gentle and relatively easy to keep.
This being my first experience with Neolamprologus I didn't know what to expect as to when or if they would spawn. I placed them in a 30-gallon (long) tank with a lot of rocks and a few plastic plants. One day I noticed something darting up and down from behind a rock. At first I thought it was simply debris floating in the water, but then I noticed there was a pattern to the movement. Realizing there was fry present, I immediately started a batch of baby brine shrimp to feed them. I was very excited. My first spawn and I had no one to show it to since my wife worked a second shift! I began to feed the fry by pouring freshly-hatched brine shrimp through an undergravel filter lift tube. I strategically placed the end of the tube near the fry and poured the nauplii down the tube. The water and food flowed down the tube, through the water, surrounding the fry with thousands of tiny morsels to eat! I was fascinated to watch the fry picking the brine shrimp from "mid air" using short quick darting motions. I hadn't realized just how many fry there were until I started feeding them. They came from every nook and cranny in the rocks. I fed them twice a day for a few days but quickly realized these things live in the wild without human intervention so I decided to watch the parents raise the fry on their own instead. That's when the real fun started!
Neolamprologus gracilis breeding pair in the aquarium. Fish and Photo by Dan Woodland.
Fortunately my education and experiences with lamprologine fishes didn't end in 1979. In subsequent years I've found a wealth of information in new books and through conversations with friends, hobbyists, and explorers like Ad Konings. In 1990 I sat in amazement as I watched his presentation on rift lake cichlids at the American Cichlid Association's annual convention in Chicago, Illinois. After the presentation I had the opportunity to meet him and ask questions one on one. At that point I knew I was hooked for life.
My latest foray into the lamprologine family is Neolamprologus gracilis. Very much like Neolamprologus palmeri I had many years ago, this fish is distinctive and easily told apart from other members of the Neolamprologus brichardi species complex. Neolamprologus gracilis is quite similar to Neolamprologus palmeri described above, as they both lack a dark mark behind the eye on the gill plate; Konings (1992) treats Neolamprologus palmeri as a variant of N. gracilis. Instead each has a narrow bluish-white line under each eye similar in outline to the shape of the gill plate. The eyes are light blue with a thin white line splitting the colored iris into two parts.
The fish I bought were received in a shipment from a breeder in Utah of all places! I purchased a large group, keeping six for myself and using the others as trade bait with other hobbyists. Neolamprologus gracilis is found near Kampamba, Zaire and in central Tanzania near Kibwesa (Konings, 1993). Neolamprologus brichardi, which gives its name to the complex that includes N. gracilis and N. palmeri, is referred to as the "Princess of Burundi" (Konings, 1993), a perfect description for this elegant beauty.
In an effort to create a Tanganyikan community tank, I placed the six gracilis in a 125-gal tank with sixteen Tropheus moorii "moliro", six Lamprologus caudopunctatus "red-fin", and three Lamprologus moorii. I also placed numerous pots, rocks and holey rock in the tank over a 90:10 mixture of sand and crushed coral as the substrate. Shortly afterward I noticed the N. gracilis "living" inside a sponge filter that I had left in the tank after converting to power filters. It was a very busy tank, and nothing was spawning so I moved the Tropheus and L. moorii elsewhere. Once this move was completed, I found N. gracilis fry almost immediately. That's when I realized that they had been spawning all along but were losing fry to their carnivorous tankmates! They're very secretive fish and chose places to breed that are very difficult to observe. Watching more closely, I noticed that they had spawned in the holes of a piece of holey rock then moved the fry to the old sponge filter tube to let the larger young raise their new brothers and sisters. Both during and after spawning the male displays to the female and attempts to keep her close to the spawning site. As batch after batch of fry appeared only to disappear, I began to suspect foul play. While all this was going on, I had added a large (12") pleco and two large clown loaches (Botia macracantha) to the tank. As I needed to drill the tank (to add it to my central water changing system), I was able to remove the pleco and loaches, and the fry losses ceased; it seems that these larger fishes were raiding the fry at night while Mom and Dad slept!
Neolamprologus gracilis male guarding its territory in the aquarium. Fish and Photo by Dan Woodland.
After things settled down again in the tank, three of the N. gracilis split off from the group of six, forcing the remaining three fish into "exile" (prior to this all six fish hung together in the same area of the tank). When the exiled fish tried to enter the area guarded by the trio, they were summarily chased out, and over time a "demilitarized zone" developed between the two groups. As long as no one crossed the DMZ, everything was peaceful. If an exile entered the DMZ, it would immediately be challenged, usually by the male of the resident trio, and forced back to the other side of the zone. For a fish that moves with such grace they can be very quick and decisive! When encounters occur, each fish flares its fins and gills in a threatening manner while shaking its body in front of the intruder. After a few intense seconds, the exile usually backs down and things go back to normal. I've even watched a half-inch fry win an encounter with an exile. Of course Dad was very close by. Additionally, if an intruder entered the territory undetected and was later discovered, it would be harassed relentlessly until it moved back across the imaginary dividing line of the DMZ -- or suffer the consequences. One such outcast crossed the line repeatedly during one of my photography sessions. The next day I found that the fish had been killed.
On the subject of the fry -- and this applies to those of all brichardi-types -- I've watched quarter-inch individuals attack intruders to defend their tiny brothers and sisters. Interestingly the parents seem to turn over the fry rearing to the older young so the adult pair can concentrate on territory defense and starting the next generation. I've even witnessed 0.25" fry dart out from cover to attack a red-fin Lamprologus caudopunctatus ten times its size! This time the amazing thing is Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found, and the caudo-punctatus still backed down!
I routinely pour de-encapsulated brine shrimp into the tank and watch the fish feed. They feed in the same manner as the N. palmeri had done years earlier! Even the adults pick the tiny food from the water. When food is not available in the water, I've observed them feed by picking at the sand substrate or the surfaces of the rocks.
Since starting with N. palmeri, I have kept Neolamprologus brichardi, N. leleupi, N. sp. "nkambe", Lamprologus tretracanthus, L. tretocephalus, L. moorii, and many more - each experience just as rewarding as the last!
In conclusion, if you have the chance to acquire Neolamprologus gracilis or one of its relatives, I suggest you do. They are among the most attractive Tanganyikan cichlids around, and they don't require an excessively large space. I used to raise a pair of them in a 10-gal tank with a single seashell for them to hide and breed in, but remember they are still cichlids and cichlids are aggressive by nature.
Neolamprologus gracilis female with her fry in the aquarium. Fish and Photo by Dan Woodland.
... for your local fish club. If you like to keep tropical fish, especially cichlids, look into joining your local fish club; most cities have a club or two. The wealth of information accessible within these clubs is unimaginable. If you're already a club member and you see a new or young member at your next meeting, introduce yourself and offer to help that person nurture his or her desire to raise and study these wonderful fishes. Additionally, subscribing to magazines, such as Cichlid News in which people share their experiences and knowledge is also invaluable!
- Axelrod, H. R.; 1979; Rift Lake Cichlids; TFH Publications, Neptune City, NJ.
- Konings, A. and H. W. Dieckhoff; 1992; Tanganyika Secrets; Cichlid Press, St. Leon-Rot, Germany. 207 pp.
- Konings, A.; 1993; The Neolamprologus brichardi complex; Pp. 6-13 in: The Cichlids Yearbook, vol. 3. (A. Konings, ed.); Cichlid Press, St. Leon-Rot, Germany. 96 pp.