Cichlasoma facetum in the aquarium. Photo by Marcelo Casacuberta.
The year was 1895, and the aquarium hobby was flourishing with the passion and fervor of expectancy and new discovery. Novel fish were arriving on the scene at a frenetic pace as the prominent Mulertt shipping vessels, similar in appearance to a metal milk can, dispersed the bountiful emergence of toy fishes (Mellen, 1927; Klee, 2003) across the country by rail. Reports in America's first 'real' aquarium magazine, "The Aquarium" (Klee, 2003), which was published by the "Father of the Aquarium Hobby," Hugo Mulertt (Klee, 2003), relayed spawning narratives of the 'Brazilian Zebra Fish,' or 'chanchito,' as it would come to be known, in Germany one year earlier, and of this fish now having been imported and bred in the United States. This would define a milestone in aquarium history as the first cichlid to be introduced into the aquarium hobby, and subsequent only to the Paradise fish in order of 'firsts' for tropical fish to be kept in the home aquaria of hobbyists.
The actual origins of the chanchito are found to trace back to Charles Darwin. The original description was given as Chromis facetus, Jenyns describing it in Jenyns, L., "The zoology of the voyage of the H. M. S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R. N., during the years 1832 to 1836," (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1840-42) (Klee, 2004).
The chanchito is made up of at least three South American species, Cichlasoma facetum, C. autochthon and C. oblongum (Leibel, 1996; 2004). These occur in southeastern Brazil and Argentina, the La Plata basin, Uruguay, Paraguay and the Rio Parana basin (Leibel, 1996; 2004). The designation of chanchito, or the Spanish 'piglet,' derived from "its habits of fighting like a young pig and of uprooting plants" (Mellen, 1927). It has also been coined the 'Chameleon fish,' or "Acara Camaleao," by the Brazilians where the fish originated, Camaleao meaning "chameleon" in Portuguese (Klee, 2004), because of its capacity of dramatic change in colors due to mood and environmental conditions. Many fish are now known to exhibit such changes, but if we keep in mind that this was the first opportunity to note such behavior, the observation resulted in quite an understandable stir.
A hardy and adaptable fish, the chanchito was able to weather the experimental stages of our hobby as it endured well the rigors of cold water, low oxygen and high nitrite levels. I consider those fish who survived to have duly earned their title of the "first to be kept as aquarium habitants" as a matter of high merit that was ordained by natural selection, or 'survival of the fittest,' as they were the stalwart ones, able to withstand a wide variance in temperature and water conditions. The chanchito, alongside its predecessor into the aquarium hobby that we mentioned earlier, the paradise fish, is a prime example of the relative ease of adaptability to fluctuations and extremes in the surrounding environment in which they were subjected due to an innocence of the times, as well as an absence of latter-day technology.
Some years ago, to my great delight, I had the good fortune of having a group of juvenile chanchitos given to me by my dear friend, Wayne Leibel. These have since proven to be, in my eyes, one of the most brilliantly beautiful of creatures as they are of the species C. oblongum, and I believe to be an exceptionally extraordinary strain of this engaging medium-sized cichlid. Their fascinating interaction and parental behavior, along with their lovely appearance, places them amongst one of the most interesting, at times challenging, and certainly enjoyable of cichlids to work with.
Chanchitos range in size from 10 to 12.5 centimeters (4 to 5 inches), with some males obtaining an adult TL of 15 centimeters (6 inches). They are defined, as their historical name 'Brazilian Zebra Fish' suggests, by an overall striping, which consists of two dark stripes across the forehead, two running over the nape and six to seven vertical bars running the entire length of the body to the caudal peduncle, highlighted by a mid-lateral blotch, and in many cases, a secondary blotch at the base of the caudal peduncle. There is a subdued horizontal bar that may appear, or not, according to the "chameleon mood" of the fish. The range of the fundamental color varies according to species, from golds to rusts, from olives to chocolates, and even velvety charcoals. The Cichlasoma oblongum is particularly breathtaking as it exhibits lovely golds, with touches of red and shimmering metallic hues of blues to varying degrees across the entire body, extending out over the dorsal and caudal fins. By circumstance, I recently discovered that placing the C. oblongum over a substratum of black sand is most to their liking, as I have never seen such a rich display of colors!
In 1894 Dr. Ludwig Slaby wrote, "The chanchito should be kept in water at from 10 to 20 degrees Reaumur (50 to 68 degrees F)..."(Natur und Haus 1894; translation by Angus Gaines in Natural Science News June 1895 (Vol. 3, No.35)) (Leibel, 1996). This being said, the chanchito was clearly as hardy as were the people of the 1800's, but as we all live a more 'comfortable' (and longer) life in this, the 21st century, please bear in mind that it would be most beneficial to maintain your chanchitos in a practical range of 22 to 26 degrees C (72 to 78 degrees F), with a raise in temperature of 28 to 29 degrees C (82 to 84 degrees F) for breeding purposes. The chanchito will well withstand a wide pH variable, but here again, a moderate pH, ranging from 6.8 to 7.2, is most appropriate. As always, regular partial water changes are the key to a healthy and contented fish.
Expectantly waiting, with nose pointed skyward, and relishing with gusto just about any morsels that come their way, your chanchitos will flourish with a varied diet of live foods such as earthworms, blackworms and grindal worms, the latter two fed sparingly due to their richness. This should be accompanied by a high quality commercial pellet, as well as a daily ration of vegetable matter, such as peas or commercially prepared vegetable wafers. When not feasting on the foods which you have rationed them, the remainder of the day should find your chanchitos rooting about in the substrate and uplifting your favorite plants with glee! Particularly during, but not exclusive to breeding and parental defense, the chanchitos are pugnacious by nature and will go out of their way to go after one another, pursuing the subordinate mercilessly about the aquarium. I am the first to give reason to the inhibition of escape due to the confines of the five walls of an aquarium, but even I draw the line when five-inch chanchitos attempt to maul one another for no apparent rationale other than "bullydome," in a 470 liters (125 gallon aquaria)! They do just as well when relegated to a 150 liters (forty gallon) breeder ( 91cm-36W" x 457cm-18D" x 40cm-16H") that is filled with the sheltering nooks of driftwood and PVC piping that can be tucked away out of sight, along with clay pots. You may choose and find them quite comfortable in a 280 liters (75 gallon) aquarium as well. If given plenty of hiding places, the results of the skirmishes will in general be those left with frayed fins and no greater tragedy.
If your aquarium husbandry practices are kept up, with feeding and water changes as described previously, procreation of your chanchitos will follow in short order. A male and female will choose their site, mine seem to select the driftwood, but this can vary from a smooth stone, a clay pot or on the leaves of plants. The spawn will range from 200 to 500 eggs, and both the male and female will care for these and the sequential fry in the epitome of diligent and fascinating cichlid fashion.
Over the years, I have enjoyed sharing the chanchito Cichlasoma oblongum with fellow hobbyists and watching the descendants passed down and come back around, which is one of the great joys of our hobby. Keep yours eyes open, and the next time you too may have the great delight of discovering the 'chanchito,' a true pioneer in the history of the aquarium hobby, on the auction table!