|Hybrid between Herichthys carpintis and H. labridens, ocurring in the natural habitat after the introduction of the former into the habitat of the later. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas|
Lately there has been a lot of discussion about hybrids and line breeding with regard to the question if these form a threat to the hobby of cichlid keeping. Most of that discussion was on Internet forums both outside and within organizations like the American Cichlid Association. I myself have participated in a few of them. As these discussions went on I started to lose track of what had been said by whom (or sometimes even what I had stated myself). Therefore I felt the need to summarize my opinion on the subject in this article.
Problems with definitions
It is very difficult to formulate an opinion on whether one is in favor of or against a thing like hybridization or line breeding. For hybrids this sounds odd, because the definition of a hybrid seems rather clear. If the parents of a cichlid belong to different species then this cichlid is called a hybrid. The problem however lies in deciding to which species the parents belong. That partly depends on the species concept you use and on your view on taxonomy. As a "splitter" you are more likely to encounter a hybrid than as a "lumper". Take the convict cichlid. For those who believe they all belong to one species Cryptoheros nigrofasciatus, breeding specimens from Nicaragua with specimens from Panamá or Honduras is no problem. If you believe all these populations to belong to different species (as Schmitter-Soto (2007) proposes) you are likely to produce hybrids.
With line breeding it is even worse. Whenever a hobbyist selects fry from a brood to grow (and maybe later use for breeding), in other words whenever natural selection is replaced by artificial (=human) selection we are line breeding. This is to say: everybody does it!
From this we can conclude that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to express a straightforward opinion on whether hybridization and/or line breeding should be allowed in or banned from the hobby. It is very hard to define the phenomenon you are regulating. In the case of hybridization you might issue a rule, but then enforcing it is practically impossible because you cannot always determine which species have been used.
Basics of the hobby
So, if hybridization and line breeding are such difficult concepts, what is the real issue? Well, I believe it is all about ethics. It’s all about what we do and why we do it. To start off: why do you keep cichlids?
Here’s my personal answer. I am fascinated by the natural world in general and by cichlids in particular. This fascination drives me to want to learn about cichlids in every way I can. How do I go about that? First, I read anything I can get my hands on. This can be both scientific work and publications by hobbyists. Second, I visit the countries where cichlids occur (in my case Central America) and study them. And last but not least, I keep cichlids in my home trying to recreate part of their habitat as best I can and hoping to see as much of their natural behavior as they care to show me.
Other people might keep cichlids for other reasons. Maybe just because they are beautiful, or big, or aggressive, or cute, or just because. These people are in the hobby too, like me. We share the same hobby. But we are not the same people.
Being hobbyists of a different type, we do different things. I will always try to keep as close to nature as I can, both in decorating my tanks (or choosing tank size for that matter) and in selecting the cichlids to keep in those tanks. I want to stay as close as possible to "wild type" fish. And I marvel at the sight of cichlids showing their wonderful "natural" behavior. Much of my enjoyment comes from the fact that my cichlids apparently feel "at home".
Others may take a different view. Wild types are not special to them. They may keep Flower horns, hybrids, veil tailed Angels etc. And get their joy out of those. Mind you, this is not to say that they will never keep wild types at all. They may and in fact they do. And they also care about their fish and want to give them a good home. It’s just that they start from a different viewpoint.
It is very important to point out that there is nothing ethically wrong with both ways of keeping cichlids. People who keep Flower horns, etc are not doing anything wrong. There shouldn't be any repercussions for them and their way of practicing the hobby. Nor should there be any for me. And all of us should be able to join organizations where we can share our experience and our joy.
As I belong to the category of hobbyists that want to keep as close to nature as possible, an important question for me is: what are the "wild types"? This question isn't exactly new. Science has struggled (or still is struggling) with it too. An example. In pre-Darwinian times it was believed that species were unchangeable. A popular philosophy in those days held that an organism is nothing more than an imperfect reflection (a copy if you will) of the essence of a species. This essentialism was largely based on ideas that go back to Plato. Variation is nothing more than the result of this imperfect copy process. Is the wild type then the same as this essence?
You may argue that essentialism is not longer an adhered philosophy in natural sciences. And you are right. But taxonomy still has the type concept. The name bearing (holo)type of a cichlid species is the specimen other cichlids are compared to in order to determine if these belong to the same species. Very much like the essence. Is the wild type thus equal to the holotype?
I can hardly believe that. The holotype might very well be an aberrant example of the variation within a species. And we all know this variation can be very broad. Again the convict cichlid as an example. I brought home seven specimens from the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua. I kept these in a 800 liters (200 gallons) tank by themselves until maybe the third generation. The variation in the resulting group (about 40) was such that I could easily have described three new species if I would have used the criteria Schmitter-Soto (2007) did in his revision. Therefore I think it is difficult to define a wild type for many cichlid species. Another problem with definitions.
On a short sidestep: I have had the pleasure of being a judge at a few shows. Although judging instructions were scarce (and never written) it was always clear that we had to judge against something like the "wild type". That appealed to me because I am on the "wild side" as a hobbyist. But apart from the problem with defining a wild type, I always wondered how these cichlids are kept to get them in show condition. I assume most of them are kept as solitary fish in order not to have them damaged by tank mates. So these fish may look like wild types, they certainly don't have the opportunity to live like wild types. No social behavior, no sex for them. Food for thought?
Enhancing your fish
The only real wild types in the hobby are the fish that were captured from their natural habitat and subsequently put in an aquarium. This will only last for one generation. As soon as we start breeding, natural selection is replaced by human selection. And changes to the wild types are introduced. As I stated before: there is no way to prevent this from happening. The big question here is: what do we want to achieve?
If we are acting in the interest of the fish (i.e. selecting for strong and healthy fry) that is perfectly OK. But if we want to try and enhance certain characters in our own interest (more colors, longer fins, etc) well, that is OK too. There is only one restriction in my opinion. We should always take into account the well being of the fish. If veil tailed guppy of angelfish can barely swim, something is wrong. The same goes for parrotfish that can hardly close their mouths. Once I've heard the argument: but it can still eat, can't it? That might be true. Fish can cope with many physical problems. I used to keep a male Archocentrus centrarchus that had lost its upper jaw in a fight. He was able to eat. But saying that that’s the same thing as deliberately selecting for specimens lacking an upper jaw would be unethical.
From the ethical point of view there is no real difference between hybridization and line breeding. Both are done with the aim of creating cichlids that are considered "more beautiful" and/or sought after. That is in the interest of the hobbyist (and not the fish) but nonetheless ethically acceptable, though not to everybody’s taste. It’s also OK to make money with it.
One final word. It might seem that I consider both approaches to the hobby as separate. They are not. They are very much intertwined, not only because one hobbyist can keep wild types and hybrids at the same time (or even in the same tank) but also because hobbyists of both sides meet all the time (and should be able to) at their local clubs, at conventions/shows and of course on the Internet. After all it is one hobby.
So where is the real threat?
Above I stated at length that there is nothing wrong with keeping wild types, hybridization and line breeding from an ethical standpoint. All are part of this great hobby of ours.
So where do the real problems lie? In trust, really. When I want to go out and buy fish, I need information. Among many other things I need to know the name of my acquired fish. To which species does it belong? Or is it a hybrid? With line bred fish it is somewhat easier. At least I can see what I'm buying, albeit without knowing if the appearance of the fish is close to the wild type or not. So information is crucial. And that’s real problem. The information is often not accurate or sometimes even misleading. Hybrids are sold to me as real species. And if I buy fry from a friend who didn't ask questions at his local fish store and got a hybrid labelled as a "pure" species, I may be convinced I have a good species because I trust my friend. This is not hypothetical. Check out the forums and you'll find many examples. Take Paratheraps. An interesting genus with several species that resemble each other quite a bit. On many forums you see people posting pictures of their newly acquired Paratheraps, asking which species it belongs to. All too often the answer is: we don't know, probably a hybrid. And I can hear them thinking: or maybe a new species? Who doesn't want to be the first one having a new species in his/her tank?
Now I know some hobbyists say that they keep track of their cichlids, know their provenance and label them accordingly when they sell fry. And I believe them. But I also believe they are a minority in the hobby. Many cichlids are sold without that type of information. More than a few hybrids are sold as true species.
And here is the problem: I fear there is no way we can control this. Our hobby will more and more be polluted by cichlids which we will be unable to identify. The solution: I don't think there is one. All this talk about banning hybrids from the (organized) hobby is useless. It discriminates serious hobbyists that happen to keep hybrids. And the vast majority of hobbyists don't know or simply don't care.
Added to all this is the fact that it becomes more and more difficult to obtain cichlids from the wild (the real wild types). Thus my worst case scenario is that wild caught cichlids will eventually disappear from the hobby and that we will be left with only hybrids or doubtful "species".
So isn't there anything we can do? Yes, there is. The answer is not to regulate but to educate. If we can teach hobbyists that it is important to keep "pure" species in the hobby and that hybridization is allowed but in a controlled manner (provenance, etc), there will be enough space for both approaches in this wonderful hobby.
I wish hybrids would never have entered the hobby. To put it more bluntly: I'm against hybrids. But since they are here we might just as well try to keep the negative consequences within limits.