A courting pair of Hypselecara temporalis, male in front, in the aquarium of Carol Kalinowski, USA. Photo by Carol Kalinowski.
I was shopping for some Cryptoheros sajica at a local pet shop when I noticed some odd looking fish in the bottom row of tanks. They were a warm chocolate brown color and had the strangest shaped orange eyes I had ever seen on a fish. The pet store employee thought they might be called chocolate cichlids, but he was a saltwater fanatic and wasn't really sure.
That evening I posted a question about chocolate cichlids on an online forum. It wasn't long before someone posted an image of an adult male H. temporalis. I knew then that I was going back to get that fish!
A Bit of Natural History
Chocolate cichlids come in two flavors, both of which are classified into the genus Hypselecara (Kullander, 1986). The two species in the genus are H. coryphaenoides (Heckel, 1840) and H. temporalis (Gunther, 1862). The original descriptions of the species occurred well over 100 years ago, and both species have been well known in the aquarium hobby for a long time. Dr. Sven O. Kullander, however, did not establish the genus name Hypselecara until 1986. The classification of these species has changed several times since they have been described by science. Both species have been included at one point in time or another as being a part of the genera Heros and Cichlasoma. H. coryphaenoides has also been placed in the genera Centrarchus and Chuco. H. temporalis has also been incorporated into the genus Acara. The list of taxonomists who have had a role in changing classification of these species reads like a who is who of historical ichthyologists, including Günther, Heckel, Jardine, Ahl, Steindachner, Boulenger and Kullander. The attention the genus has gotten is deserved, as these fish are very unique.
Both of the Hypselacara species are found over a wide range in the Amazon River basin. They are both well established in the aquarium hobby and trade, with many captive-raised fish available, as well as consistent importation of wild specimens. Their popularity can be attributed to good looks and relatively peaceful temperament. H. coryphaenoides has a subtle beauty derived from its rich chocolate brown color highlighted by red, green and orange. H. temporalis is more boldly colored, especially during spawning, with a vibrant green base color highlighted with rust-red, yellow, and orange. At maturity, both species have a spectacularly red eye that contrasts with the subdued color tones of the fish.
Bringing Them Home
That first chocolate cichlid was seven and a half centimeters (three inches) long when I bought her. I kept her in a tank by herself for a month or two, and then moved her into my cichlid community tank. She was bold enough to hold her own and feed along with everyone else, but not so bold as to cause problems for the smaller cichlids in the aquarium.
I was at the same pet shop about a year later when I saw two stunning young H. temporalis. Their bright colors and elongated fins suggested that they might be males, so I purchased them both. I quarantined the two new fish for a couple of weeks, and then released them into the community tank with the larger female. Within a day I noticed a bit of "flirting" between my female and both of the new fish.
The female laid eggs with the smaller of the two males about a week later. They both tended the eggs and defended the territory, but were not overly aggressive. Those eggs either didn't hatch or were eaten as soon as they hatched. I never saw any fry. A few days later the female spawned with the larger of the two males, but the result was the same. The eggs disappeared over night.
I decided to move the female and smaller male (who was better looking) into a 210 liter (55-gallon) aquarium by themselves. Spawning activity began two weeks after they were introduced to their new home. I have been able to observe and photograph the spawning process in detail.
Courtship begins with a dancing, shimmying display. The pair swims side-by-side flaring their gills at each other, and occasionally flaring face-to-face. The male will also nudge the female's flanks with his head, and rush at her while flaring his gills. Lip-locking occurs late in the courtship, not long before the eggs are laid.
The last step in the courtship is the selecting and cleaning of a rock. Both fish will dig pits and clean rocks, but the final selection of a spawning site seems to be the female's decision. When the rock has been cleaned the pair will continue their courtship display. Between the displays the female will make practice runs up the rock as if she is laying eggs. She does this over and over again for several hours as the male watches her closely.
Eventually the male will join the female in her runs up the rock, and this is when the first eggs are laid. The male backs off after fertilizing a batch of eggs and waits patiently near the rock. The female will make another pass depositing more eggs, and then the male slips in behind her and slowly moves over the rock fertilizing again. The laying of the eggs goes on for over an hour. It fascinating to see the process, like a choreographed dance so intricate and graceful, performed with such purpose and determination. I am enthralled seeing something so amazing happening right before my eyes.
The male and female guard the eggs diligently after they have been laid. They will occasionally hover over and fan the eggs, as well as gently mouth the eggs. When the eggs have been on the spawning surface for a couple of days the parents will move to another area of the tank and start to clean a different rock and dig a small pit next to it. If the parents sense any danger they rush back to the eggs, then return to the site of their cleaning when the threat has passed.
When the pit is finished the parents will begin to move the eggs to the pit. The eggs do not appear to have hatched at this point. Both parents participate in the transfer. Once the original site has been cleaned of the eggs the new location is protected.
The eggs begin hatching after a few days, and wigglers can be seen hanging at the base of the rock above the pit and in the pit itself. Three days later the fry are free swimming and hovering in a swarm around the parents. The parents both take part in the brood care. They carefully collect fry that swim away from the crowd and bring them back to the nest site. This close contact between the pair and their fry lasts for about two weeks. The fry grow quickly under the attentive care of the parents.
A courting sequence of a pair of Hypselecara temporalis in the aquarium of Carol Kalinowski, USA. Click on the pictures to see a larger image. Photos by Carol Kalinowski.
A Unique Spawning
One particular spawning cycle stands out as being unique. The entire brood of fry that the parents were raising was suddenly gone. I could not see them in the tank, and the parents were not showing their brood-care behavior. I assumed that they had eaten the spawn (there are no other fish in their tank), though I did not understand why they would have done so. I was shocked two days later when I turn on the tank light to find that the pair has laid eggs again. This is a much shorter interval between spawns than normally occurs. They go thru the same process as in the past, tending eggs, fanning, mouthing and finally moving them after the second day. I still see no signs of the previous batch of fry.
The new batch had just become free swimming when I noticed that there were two different sized fry in the tank. The larger fry were grouped together in an upper corner of the tank. The smaller fry were grouped together and faithfully tended by the parents. I could only assume that the larger fry were from the first spawn that had disappeared. There were only about 50 fry remaining from that spawn that had originally numbered in the hundreds.
The parents were both guarding the newest batch for the most part, but the female would also leave the younger brood to tend to the older fry. The male did not seem interested in the older fry, other than to attack them if they came too close to the group he was guarding. If one of the older offspring moved towards the new brood both parents would go after it. If the male got to it first the fry would be eaten. If the female was the first to reach the fry she would take it back to the corner of the tank and spit it into the group of youngsters there.
The female would also actively defend the older fry from the male. Every time he moves towards the older batch the female rushes to them, flaring and biting at the male. She won't let him anywhere near them, and yet she will turn around and join him in cooperatively protecting the younger brood. This situation lasted for two days. The older fry were scattered on the third day, and their numbers were greatly reduced. All of the older fry were gone by the fourth day. The newest batch only lasted a few more days and then they also disappeared completely. There is usually a week between the disappearance of a brood and the beginning of a new breeding cycle. This double-brood event was the only time that I had seen it occur.
Witnessing the growth, pairing and spawning of these cichlids has been an amazing experience; one that I highly recommend experiencing for yourself. If you want to own a gorgeous fish with tons of personality, beautiful colors, amazing parenting skills and interesting behaviors, then this is the fish for you.
Hypselecara temporalis pair in the aquarium of Carol Kalinowski. Photo by Carol Kalinowski.