Sometimes in the life of an aquarium hobbyist there are strange situations that must be solved in a short time and with little margin of error. In my case, my Malawi mouthbrooders collection had been decreasing with time and a few months ago I only owned a trio of Labeotropheus trewavasae "red top" and one male and four females Labidochromis exasperatus.
Labeotropheus trewavasae pair (male at front) in typical "T" position. Fish and Photo by Manuel Zapater Galve.
Then my eldest brother decided to set up a 450 l (116 gallons) aquarium in his living room, where they could be housed more comfortably in company of other African cichlids. The problem I had is that knowing that I would have to get rid of them in just a couple of months, I wanted to reproduce at least one of my two females, in order to keep some young of this beautiful species.
In my 200 l (51 gal) 1 m x 0.4 m x 0.5 m, the Labeotropheus male was clearly the boss and one of the females had a pretty big tummy, and was continuously harassing the smaller one, I decided to try my luck and do something a little bit desperate. I set up a 80 l (21 gal) tank with a 3 cm layer of thin gravel and two big groups or rockwork at the back corners, to give some refuge to the fish.
The filtration was carried out by an external EheimTM filter that should have a flow of 200 l/h (51 gal/h), where the original sponges had been replaced by synthetic fibers that came from an already working tank. To illuminate the tank I used two 18w Biolux fluorescent lights, that worked 12 hours a day. Since my fish are already used to the tap water from Zaragoza (Spain), with an average pH of 7.7 and 25°GH of hardness, I decided not to modify these chemical characteristics, provided that they match acceptably the conditions in their natural habitat (at least the fish don't seem to disagree with this water). To set up the aquarium faster I used 50% of new water and 50% from the original aquarium. The temperature was fixed at 27°C (81°F), two degrees Celsius higher than the original tank, which was at 25°C (77°F). Every week I renewed around 25% of the water and cleaned partially the filtrating material.
I captured the dominant female after removing all the rockwork during the night in the 200 l (51 gal) tank and I placed her in the new aquarium. While I waited for her to get used to the new conditions, I fed her three times a day with live Daphnia coming from my own culture, frozen Artemia and a frozen self-made food made from carrots, white fish, bananas, spinach and chicken liver. During the first days I seldom saw her out of feeding time, because she hid behind the rocks. When I noticed that she was better adapted, I captured the male, who had also been benefiting from a good quality meal during this time.
In the it was a small chaos, because the male quickly got ready to spawn, but the female panicked due to the agitation of his companion and went back to hiding to avoid being harassed by him. The only solution I could find to solve this problem was to bring the second female, who having not been dominated for a couple of weeks seemed much fitter and became very good looking. I hoped that doing this the biggest female would get ready to spawn.
After two or three days of total chaos, not being able to see my fish unless I dropped some food into the aquarium, what I was waiting for happened. The male recovered his bright-dark blue colour, and the biggest female started to prosecute the smallest one, who wasn't able to get out of her refuge. However, this last one didn't look endangered to me so I decided to keep her in the tank.
Then the male began to dig a 10 cm in diameter hole next to one of the rear corners of the aquarium and tried to bring the female towards it. It was quite patent the ovipositor in both of them. Once fully convinced, the female began to swim over the hole and lay down a few eggs every time that were fertilized by the male. The female in the meantime waited with her body perpendicular to the male, which is known as the classical "T" position of mouthbrooders. After the fertilized eggs were taken by the female into her mouth the whole process started again. Due to the size of the female, around 8 cm (3 ¼ inches) I reckon that there must have been around 25 eggs.
Labeotropheus trewavasae young, a few days after getting out of their mother's mouth.Fish and Photo by Manuel Zapater Galve.
Labeotropheus trewavasae young female. Fish and Photo by Manuel Zapater Galve.
After being sure of the end of the process and wanting the female to be as quiet as possible, I removed the other two fish, who didn't reproduce any more in my tanks, and waited 20 days before daring to make the female free her fry artificially. Knowing that for this species at this temperature the mouthbrooding process lasts about 25 days, I thought it was the time to do it. I held the female with my left hand (previously wet) and pushed her lower lip downwards with my fingers to open her mouth. She was head down and half the body into a 5 l (1 gal) bucket. To my surprise, I got 19 young fish completely developed.
One of the curious facts that this species presents is that the sexes of the fry can be clearly told when they are outside her mother's mouth, because while males are dark grey in colour, females are yellowish. So, I had 10 males and 9 females that were housed in a 10 l (2.5 gal) bare tank with two Pomacea sp. (apple snails). This aquarium was kept at 25°C, and due to the lack of filtration 50 % of the water was replaced everyday, making a good effort to remove all the residues. An air pump gave some movement to the water.
The rate of growth of the young fish, fed at least 5 times a day with frozen Artemia, powder for baby Discus, frozen food and crushed flakes, was quite fast. However, I lost two of them because of a mistake. We must bear in mind that mbunas' fry must take care of themselves after they get out of their mother's mouth, so they look for a sure hide in the rocks and only go out when there is food. Because of that particular behaviour, in a bare tank, without any more refuges than the two apple snails, some of them got very stressed and died. Once the problem was detected (colour much too dark, some fish not feeding and trying to hide in the corners), I put a rock that covered roughly one fifth of the surface, which was big enough for them to go under and feel safe. I had no more losses and they seemed much calmer and happier.
When the remaining 17 measured about 2 cm (0.8"), as we were in august, I had to put them in a 1,000 l (257 gal.) tank placed in a greenhouse, because I was going on holiday and nobody was able to take care of my fish properly. So, in company of some young Xiphophorus helleri, they were fed once a day with flakes by my brother, who didn't have holidays and had accepted to take care of our "zoological garden".
When I came back in September, I set up again all my aquariums and recovered the fish from their summer holidays, which always seem to be good for them. I had still fifteen of them, that went to a 140l (36 gal) tank until they got 5 cm (2") in size.hat is when the males begin to show their territorial instincts and become dangerous. So, with great pain, I had to get rid of them, keeping only 3 females and a male in the hope to set up a new and bigger tank for them.
I don't know whether this particular experience can be reproduced by other mbunas' hobbyists, but for me it was the solution I had to take not to lose my favourite fish. I hope this article will be of interest to everyone that reads it.