Telmatochromis vittatus male in the aquarium of Audrey Marquis. Photo by Audrey Marquis.
Pronouncing this name amongst a group of cichlidiots does not produce the same effect as Tropheus or Cyphotilapia frontosa do. It doesn't even produce the effect of Neolamprologus or Julidochromis. Eyebrows raise, then frown, some polite people ask "Telma what?", some others look elsewhere to find people ready to talk about... Tropheus or Frontosa.
Well, the reason of such reactions is that Telmatochromis lovers are uncommon in our hobby, and their love for these little cichlids not really well understood and difficult to keep on going. Of course, most Tanganyikan lovers can appreciate the beauty of a so-called "gray" fish, and the subtility of their unique behaviors. But the Telmatochromis species seem to go unnoticed, even if their look is stunning and their behavior really interesting, with a small size and a milder temper than their cousins Julidochromis. For a mysterious reason, is not as popular as it could be.
Identification of Telmatochromis species
Before going further away in the breeding setup description, I think it would be important to clarify the misidentification problem that plague Telmatochromis genus, problem that is probably part of its unpopularity. Many pictures representing the Telmatochromis diverse species, even in the best reference books, are wrongly labelled and have led to an inextricable jumble. Anyone considering buying these cichlids should be able to easily identify the specie that is being offered, whatever the label on the tank or the book says.
So Telmatochromis basically consists of two type of fish, an elongated type represented by Telmatochromis brichardi, vittatus and bifrenatus, and a group of more thickset fish with Telmatochromis temporalis, dhonti and burgeoni. I will not go further in describing the temporalis group nor the numerous new undescribed species, and will concentrate on the three torpedo-like ones.
First lets take apart Telmatochromis bifrenatus. Even if this fish is the most easy to distinguish from the others, it is its name that is commonly given to T. vittatus or T. brichardi. The source of the confusion is that people take for granted that if the fish is called bifrenatus, it's because it has 2 bands on its sides. Of course it's right, Telmatochromis bifrenatus has 2 bands, but these 2 do not include the band that is right at the junction of the flank and the dorsal fin, hence the confusion associated with its name. If we take into account every lateral band of this fish, including the most dorsal one, it has 3 bands and not 2.
Since we can now easily identify a Telmatochromis bifrenatus, let's do the same with the other two, brichardi and vittatus. These Telmatochromis look identical, but there are slight differences between them that should make their identification easier. They both have one lateral band plus a second band at the junction of the dorsal fin and the flank. T. brichardi's lateral band is barred with numerous small oblique bars, whereas T. vittatus has an almost non-broken lateral band. The snout of T. brichardi is more pointed and is eye is larger than T. vittatus. Finally, T. vittatus is normally larger than T. brichardi, but this can vary in home aquarium.
What I did wrong...
Whatever people thought of these fish, I decided to acquire some to make my own experience with them. I bought a group of 3 F2 Telmatochromis vittatus from a reputable importer and breeder, one female and two males, in the hope of observing their behaviors and, of course, breeding them.
I housed them (or crowded them, if you prefer!) in a 95 liters (25 gallons) tank with four young Julidochromis dickfeldi. The tank was a conventionnal rock-dwellers habitat, with PVC pipes and flower pots hidden under the rock piles, and a few medium sized marine shells scattered in the center of the tank, on the five cm (two inches) sandy substrate. Telmatochromis are typical rock-dwellers, but they will use a shell for breeding if given one, so I decided to use that trick to, maybe, trigger spawning.
Telmatochromis vittatus breeding tank. Photo by Audrey Marquis.
The water chemistry was typical of a Tanganyikan tank, with a pH around 9, GH and KH around 400 ppm. I did 25% water changes weekly, in an attempt to keep the nitrates below 10-20 ppm. The filter was an external Aquaclear TM 610 loaded with biomedia, and the tank was lit 14 hours a day by a 20 watts Aquaglo TM fluorescent tube. The temperature was kept constant, at 24 C. The fish were fed a typical planctonivorus diet, consisting of high protein commercial flakes, live food such as microworms, grindal and white worms, and frozen brine shrimp every other day.
With this setup I succeeded to breed the Julidochromis and there was an obvious courting behavior between the larger male Telmatochromis and the female, but no fry! The larger male was constantly flaring at the female, dancing around the tank in a frantic manner, throwing himself upon the rocks at a torpedo speed without hurting himself. This dance, typical of the genus, is very breath taking to the observer. The male is believed to seduce the female by the intensity of the shock waves he creates while he "dances". She undirectly receives the vibrations and she responds by vibrating her head and finally entering her shell. My fish did that, but no fry were to be seen, and I began to think that they were definitely sterile.
To make things worse, the larger male was harassing the small one constantly, when not trying to breed with the female. The result was a Telmatochromis pinned up in a corner of the tank, with fins torn and colors washed away. At every approach of the big male, the small one distorted its body in a "s" form, swimming upside down, and vanishing all its black coloration to appear almost white or pale beige. The second later, it flew away from the terrific attacks of the larger male, found a temporary shelter behind the heater or the thermometer, and took a break for some minutes before facing a new attack of the large male. And finally, the breeding Julidochromis couples shared the territory and totally excluded the Telmatochromis from their estate plans... The three poor fish where forced to hide in their shells or caves by the agressive Julidochromis dickfeldi, only the large male was allowed to come out so he could ripe the small male in pieces and do its little dances to its female. The situation was what you would expect it to be in a so small tank with 3 breeding couples of cave-dwellers: a disaster.
At this point, I noticed a weird Julidochromis fry swimming amongst its sisters and brothers. This fry had a longer body than a normal Julidochromis dickfeldi and was paler in color. More important, its behavior was different from the other fry. Instead of swimming belly up under the rocks and in the crevices, it just crawled on the sand and the vertical rocks, in a very particular way. Maybe the best description of this behavior was that it swam like a salt water blenny.
I captured this fry and some of its siblings and let them grow. What I found out some weeks later was that this baby was a hybrid between the Julidochromis and Telmatochromis species! I let the fry grow older in the intention to take some pictures of it, and at 4 months old, this is what it looked like: it had the body shape, snout, facial mask, black spot on the caudal pedicle and black line on the top of the dorsal fin characteristics of Telmatochromis vittatus, combined with the three bands, blue line on the edge of fins and fluorescent blue hues on the flank and below the eye characteristics of Julidochromis dickfeldi.
I never understood clearly what happened to produce this hybrid. Did the sperm of the breeding Julidochromis male affected some eggs in the female Telmatochromis shell? Did the Telmatochromis male cheated his spoused and visited the Julidochromis territory? I will never know for sure, but one thing is certain, it is that I will never ever put a Julidochromis specie with an elongated Telmatochromis specie together, nor advise someone to do so. These species are different indeed, but they are still too closely related genetically to place them together in a small tank...
And what I did not do wrong...
After this sad outcome with the cohabitation of two cave-dwelling species, I transferred the Telmatochromis in a new home. This time they were housed with 8 Cyprichromis leptosoma "Utinta" and a lone Paracyprichromis nigrippinis, to make sure no hybridization would occur!!
The tank was operated the same way as the previous tank, with these different characteristics:
- 91x33x33 cm (36"x13"x13") homemade tank (approx. 95 liters ~ 25 US gallons.)
- 20 watts Powerglo TM fluorescent tube
- Decor made of 4 large pieces of rock combined with some large sea-shells and a cave made of a recycled plastic container, hidden below rocks and sand.
- A water onion and some Anubia barteri decorated the tank.
With this setup and in the absence of the Julidochromis, the trio settled in quickly and began to breed some weeks after the move. The larger male adopted the plastic pot cave, the female a shell nearby and the small male a lone shell protected by large chunks of rocks. In this longer tank, the two males didn't seem to have any problem cohabitating, and in fact behaved very well together, and with the Cyprichromis too.
The breeding took place in a common shell-dweller way, with the male dancing and dancing again and again, then forcing the female to enter the shell and finally hovering in the entrance of the shell for a few seconds. The fry was visible at the entrance of the shell two weeks later, but at this point they were autonomous, so I concluded that they probably came out sooner but because of their small size and sand-like coloration, I never saw them until they reached a larger size.
The couple produced 7 to 10 fry every 6 to 7 weeks, but as I did nothing to capture more fry such as putting the female shell out of the tank after the spawning, it is possible to conclude that they can produce more fry than that. However, 7 to 10 seemed to be the quantity of fry this tank was able to lead to a decent size, and that was all that I expected.
When the fry reached 12 mm (half an inch) in length, I captured them and raised them in a second home-made tank, of dimensions and water parameters similar with the parents' tank. The main difference was that this tank was only lit by sunlight, no artificial lighting on this one, and was decorated to fit the need of these vigorous fry: lots of PVC pipes, rocks, lava rock and shells, to let them establish territories and by the way have some physical activity. It lodged the baby Telmatochromis as well as a one year old baby Altolamprologus sp. Sumbu and a group of Julidochromis fry. I did major water changes of 50% once a week, and fed the young ones with high quality flakes, microworms, grindal worms and a homemade food composed of shrimp, white fish and vegetables. The fry grew slowly, and by the age of 6 months they reach half the length of adult fish.
To anyone that would like to give a try to one of the elongated Telmatochromis species, I say let's go, do it, but be aware of what you are doing and get your fish at knowledgeable and reputable breeders or importers only. Inform yourself about the differences between Telmatochromis described and undescribed species, and be prepared to face some misidentification problems even then. Finally, judging from my hybridization experience, I can give you the advice to not put these fish with a Julidochromis species and maybe even a Chalinochromis species, as they are closely related too. They are lovely little fish, with a mild temper and a funny behavior, and it would be great if one day, Telmatochromis addicts could talk about their Tanganyikan torpedoes without hesitations in a fish-party!
Telmatochromis vittatus female at the spawning shell. Photo by Audrey Marquis.