(This article was originally published in Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine, Jun 1981; pp. 38-43, 62-63. It is here reproduced with the permission of author Dr. Paul V. Loiselle).
One of the best ways to start a lively conversation among a group of cichlid fanciers is to ask them how they became interested in keeping cichlids. Making allowances for individual peculiarities of expression, the replies fall into several distinct categories. In a few cases, the printed word served as the medium of contagion. A roughly equivalent percentage of respondents will confess to having become cichlidiots through direct contact with an already afflicted party. Such contacts take their most extreme form when a cichlid breeder inflicts a batch of fry upon an uninitiated fellow hobbyist. To paraphrase a medical friend, this approach to arousing someone's interest in cichlid keeping is comparable to mainlining with hard drugs it is either immediately fatal or else produces total addiction! However, the overwhelming majority of one's interlocutors will reply that seeing living specimens over a period of time piqued their interest in cichlids. This may hardly seem surprising. After all, this is how most aquarists get into the hobby in the first place. What is of more than incidental interest is the breakdown of replies these persons give when one asks where they saw cichlids to such advantage. Most will say their contacts occurred at a retail establishment. A few will mention a particularly impressive display of cichlids at a friend's home or at a public aquarium. Virtually no one will cite a fish show as his, or her, point of contact with cichlids. Yet when one considers the number of such shows held annually and the number of persons attending them, this might seem passing strange, indeed.
As one who has judged a few fish shows over the years, let me assure you, dear readers, there is nothing at all unusual about such a response or should I say lack of one. Come stroll with me through a typical exhibit of ornamental fish and you will see why. As we enter the hall, we pass a series of beautifully decorated marine tanks filled with active inhabitants as curious about us as we are about them. A quick glance at the fancy goldfish reveals a series of statuesque specimens, condemned to quasi-immobility by their morphological deformities. We pass tank after tank of characoids and cyprinids, schooling in mid-water with the vacuous contentment of group living fishes maintained in adequate numbers, of placid gouramies and of concupiscent poeciliids. We marvel at racks of perpetually bellicose Bettas and gaze intently into dimly lit drum bowls where pairs of killifish hover in mid-water or dissipate themselves in wild vortices of pleasure. At last we arrive at the cichlids.
The first tank in this section contains what must once have been a very impressive pair of veil angelfish. We can only conclude that something must have happened to them in transit to their present quarters, as surely no one would deliberately enter fish with such badly split vertical fins in competition. The next tank contains a pair of chocolate brown discus with opaque eyes. It seems safe to assume present water conditions are not to their liking. The label on one seemingly empty tank proclaims it the domicile of a pair of Apistogramma reitzigi. Are we victims of false advertising? Not at all. Several minutes of the most acute scrutiny reveal that the tank does, indeed, contain two inhabitants. One has wedged itself under the corner box filter, while the other is mimicking with astounding fidelity the inside rear angle of the otherwise bare 20 l aquarium. We shall have to take the exhibitor's word as to their identity, for in their present state, August Heaven itself would be hard put to even recognize them as fish. An attempt to examine a large Gold Severum more closely is foiled by the animal's attempt to batter its way through the walls of its aquarium every time a shadow passes over its surface. No such timidity afflicts the large Tiger Oscar several tanks down, but it is difficult to make out his strong points due to the milky gray turbidity of the water in his tank. A closer look reveals a disconnected filter and a score of partly decomposed food pellets on the bottom of his quarters, We conclude our promenade with a series of tanks housing pairs of diverse cichlids, ranging from Central American species through Rift Lake mouthbrooders. Their common denominator is a striking sexual dimorphism. The male in each tank is swimming actively about, fins erect, colors sparkling, every scale in place. The female, on the other hand, appears to have suffered from an intimate encounter with a food processor sometime in the recent past.
Many readers have probably concluded halfway through the preceding paragraph that I have fallen victim to a case of terminal hyperbole. Would that it were so! Those who regularly attend fish shows know quite well that none of the foregoing observations are in the least exaggerated. No group of ornamental fishes shows as poorly as do cichlids. Given the important role that fish shows play in educating the public to various facets of the aquarium hobby, such a situation is at best deplorable. 1t is not, however, inevitable. The poor showing cichlids make at such exhibitions is due to the ignorance of both organizing committees and exhibitors of the conditions these highly intelligent and very aggressive fish require to make a good showing. This essay will endeavor to explore means of putting this unacceptable condition to rights.
I will begin by suggesting ways in which show rules can be modified to create an environment wherein cichlids can feel sufficiently secure to look their best. As I have pointed out in an earlier essay (Loiselle, 1979), cichlids are extremely intelligent fish whose behavior is strongly influenced by their surroundings. Given that the problems encountered in exhibiting cichlids derive primarily from their behavior under typical show conditions, it follows that more acceptable behavior will only follow the appropriate changes in those conditions. Such changes can be accomplished with minimal violence to existing show rules if approached with an intelligent appreciation of what a cichlid requires to feel secure.
The biggest offender against the cichlid psyche is the bare display tank, devoid of all furnishings save an inside box filter, which most show rules impose upon exhibitors. The bare tank offends in two ways. First of all, it exposes any fish within it to a lighting regime utterly alien to what prevails either in nature or in the home aquarium. No fish feels at ease when illuminated from below. Yet under show conditions, cichlids in a bare tank are almost always exposed to this extremely stressful illumination, for the glass bottom of their tanks catches the available light from any source whatever and reflects it upward. Is it any wonder that most cichlids try their best to get as far away as possible from such conditions, while even the more unflappable species usually display highly atypical coloration when exposed to such illumination? Nor do many cichlids, particularly the smaller species, feel comfortable in brightly-lit tanks even if the light comes exclusively from above. Such conditions in nature signal extreme hazard from avian predators such a herons and kingfishers. Continued survival for smaller cichlids exposed to strong illumination in nature is assured by either fleeing at once to more dimly lit areas or else trying to become as inconspicuous as possible to potentially hostile gazes. Neither response under show conditions is likely to endear judges and public to its practitioners.
There is no reason to inflict either trauma upon exhibited fish any longer than it takes to spread a thin layer of natural gravel over the bottom of a show tank while introducing a mat of floating plants to its surface. These two simple measures will instantly alleviate the major sources of stress. Such a practice requires nothing more on the part of a show committee than a minor amendment to the rules allowing exhibitors to set their tanks up in this fashion. As it hardly adds more than a few minutes to the total time required setting up or breaking down a show tank. It is difficult to imagine that such a modification could be criticized as introducing unwarranted logistical complications to showing procedures. I can think of no cogent arguments against such an innovation and most emphatically urge its adoption by all aquarium societies that sponsor fish shows. Hopefully, the American Cichlid Association will set the requisite example for local clubs by mandating such practices at the show that accompanies its annual convention.
While rationalizing the illumination in a show tank will prevent a given cichlid from looking its worst, it still does not guarantee that the fish in question will look its best. To attain that objective, a bit more in the way of behavioral modification is required. The smaller cichlids in particular will seldom behave normally in what they perceive to be a dangerous environment. Such species respond to very specific cues from their surroundings and an environment that lacks these signals will be perceived as hazardous regardless of how free it may actually be of potential danger to its cichlid inhabitants. The two factors that signal security to a nervous cichlid are the normal activities of its tankmates and the availability of shelter. In the typical bare show tank neither is present. Hence the need for the poor show judge to pry dwarf cichlids out of the corners of their tanks with a net handle, or pen, before he can exercise his function.
Once again, the remedy is simple. The show rules need only designate one or two species of "standard dither fish" for show use and specify the maximum number to be used per tank. A standard "dither dose" of six zebra danios per 40 1 aquarium would equalize showing conditions for all exhibitors of shy cichlids, to the great benefit of the fish themselves, those called upon to judge them and the viewing public. The problem of shelter is a more complicated matter to resolve. Standardization is made difficult by the fact that not all cichlids are likely to recognize a given structure as an appropriate shelter. Neolamprologus brevis, for instance, characteristically refuges in empty snail shells and would probably not be greatly reassured by the presence of an overturned flowerpot in its tank. Most Neotropical dwarf cichlids, on the other hand, would be equally at a loss if offered empty Neothauma shells as refuges. Allowing each exhibitor to provide a single shelter object per fish, regardless of its nature, seems a workable means of preventing potential abuses without attempting to impose unreasonable demands upon the behavioral plasticity of such a policy's beneficiaries.
Much of the behavior deemed undesirable by cichlids under show conditions is amenable to modification. However, it is important to realize that certain aspects of cichlid behavior are effectively resistant to any practically available modification tactics. I refer specifically to the very low probability that two adult cichlids of the opposite sex, regardless of their previous reproductive history, will be able to share a 40 1-100 1 aquarium for several days without coming to blows. Neither exhibitors nor show committees should be blinded by the occasional exceptions to this rule. Obviously, the risks are not the same for all cichlids. Female haplochromines run a substantially greater risk under such conditions than do those of most Neotropical cichlids, simply because while the latter form long-term pair bonds, the former do not and, hence, lack any behavioral mechanisms that work to promote prolonged coexistence at close quarters. But the combination of novel surroundings, reduced living space, absence of other fishes with which to interact and the twin shocks of capture and transport are likely to erode the viability of the pair bond even in those species which do possess the behavioral bases for long-term coexistence. Both humane and esthetic considerations thus dictate that all tanks intended for the display of cichlids have the capacity to be quickly and easily partitioned or failing this, that exhibitors be allowed to display the members of a pair in separate, preferably adjacent tanks. Nothing reflects less favorably upon both the organizers of a show and the individual exhibitors who allow it to happen than tanks containing battered specimens. Given the ease with which partitioning can be arranged, there is simply no excuse for the perpetuation of such callous and inept practices. Here is another area in which the A.C.A. can and should take the lead in setting standards.
The aggressiveness of many cichlids towards conspecifics may complicate the logistics of showing these fish, but if properly manipulated, this characteristic can greatly enhance the effectiveness with which they are displayed. Betta fanciers have long appreciated that their fish posture most dramatically and show their best coloration in aggressive encounters. Hence the adoption of show conventions that exploit the proximity of a conspecific male as a potent releaser of aggressive behavior while precluding the possibility of actual combat. I believe cichlid exhibitors could profitably borrow a trick or two from the Betta enthusiasts when showing their fish. Haplochromines in particular would benefit from such a move, as the response of conspecific males to one another has many parallels with that seen in Betta splendens. I would specifically suggest that exhibitors be allowed to partition cichlid display tanks in the manner illustrated in the accompanying figure. The two end compartments would contain the pair to be judged, while the central chamber would contain a male conspecific stimulus fish, with whom the male of the pair would interact. Such a simple arrangement would allow both show judges and the viewing public to see males of such species as many Haplochromines of l.akes Malawi and Victoria and of the maternal mouthbrooding Sarotherodon species at their scintillating best.
The final area in which show committees are frequently delinquent is that of informing exhibitors of the water chemistry of the show site's water supply. Cichlids, as a group, are tolerant of a wide range of water conditions, but there are exceptions, such as the cichlids of Lake Tanganyika, whose pH and hardness requirements are quite stringent. Besides, even such fairly plastic species as the larger Cichlasoma species are unlikely to respond positively to an abrupt change from the water chemistry to which they are accustomed. Out of town entrants are obviously at a very serious disadvantage in this regard, but given the variance that can occur even within the limits of a single municipality depending upon a given district's source of water, even local participants deserve to be told in advance what sort of water conditions they can expect for their fish. It is certainly not asking too much for some member of the show organizing committee to measure the pH and hardness of the show site's water supply and make a seat-of-the-pants assessment of the chlorine content while he is about it. Such information can be conveyed to prospective exhibitors in their packet of show rules and entry forms. Entrants would then have some basis for deciding whether to bring their own water to the show site or trust the local water supply. The viewing public would then be spared the unedifying spectacle of badly stressed specimens, while show participants would enjoy an enhanced likelihood of reclaiming their prized pets in a state approximating their pre-show condition.
It may seem that I am placing the entire blame for the poor showing cichlids make at fish shows exclusively upon the collective head of the societies that sponsor and organize such events. That is not my intent. I have chosen to initially point out areas where current practices are grossly deficient because, until show committees come to appreciate the special needs of cichlids and alter the rules governing their exhibition accordingly, there is relatively little the individual exhibitor can do to change this situation. Given a workable set of show rules, there is a great deal an entrant can do to enhance the impact his fish will make upon both the judges and the public, both in terms of how he prepares his entries for showing and how he cares for them once they are on display.
Most hobbyists appreciate the need to groom the physical appearance of their fish before showing them. Such a regime of preparation usually comprises extra attention to the diet and physical well being of future entries. However, all the attention devoted to enhancing the color and conformation of a show fish is wasted effort if the animal's behavior makes it impossible for the judges or spectators to appreciate its good points. Behavioral conditioning of show entries is thus of even greater importance than physical conditioning, yet it is usually entirely overlooked by exhibitors. There is no excuse for such neglect given the ease with which cichlids respond to simple conditioning techniques.
Under home conditions, cichlids are typically kept in the company of other fish in surroundings where human activity is at a minimum. Their interactions with humans are restricted to one or two individuals and their daily routine of feedings highly predictable. Under show conditions, this pattern is totally reversed. The fish are placed in the relative isolation of a display tank that is located in an area bustling with human traffic. The routine of regular feedings is upset and the fish must put up with the close approach of a multitude of complete strangers. Is it surprising that even normally outgoing cichlids often develop a bad case of the sulks when entered in a fish show?
The key to good deportment by show entries is to expose the fish to the conditions they will encounter at the show several months before the actual event. If at all possible, move the tank containing potential show entries to a more trafficked part of the house. Cichlids quickly loose their sensitivity to human activity and movement in well frequented surroundings. Should this prove impractical, be sure that future entries are moved into quarters that approximate the tanks in which they will be displayed. The object in both cases is to habituate the fish to the surroundings they will encounter at the show. Transforming the shyness often shown at the approach of strangers is also a simple matter involving a modification of the fish's usual feeding schedule. Instead of giving entries their daily rations as one or two feedings on a regular basis, spread the total amount of food offered over as many small meals as practical and offer these unpredictably. Such an irregular reinforcement schedule will keep the fish far more aware of its immediate surroundings and lead it to investigate observers as potential suppliers of food, Such conditioning is even more effective if one can persuade, or coerce, family members and friends to participate in the program. The more different faces and patterns of footfalls a cichlid comes to associate with food, the more quickly it will loose its shyness in the presence of strangers.
There are several wrinkles a sophisticated or fanatic show participant can introduce to such a conditioning program. One of the more amusing variants was practiced by an aquarist who felt that his red oscar had been slighted by the judges at one show and resolved subsequently to its failure to place among the winners in its class that in the future, his pet would have their full attention. His approach to assuring good deportment entailed holding a clipboard identical to that used by show judges for their worksheets whenever he fed the fish. Within a short time, Messire Oscar learned to rush forward and begin begging for food at the mere sight of a clipboard, regardless of who might be holding it. Doubtlessly convinced that, at the very least, the Best in Class trophy was as good as on the mantle piece, this practitioner of forensic ethology entered the object of his handiwork in the next local show, confident that the behavior of his entry would impress the judges and enjoy their undivided attention. The fish accomplished both objectives admirably, albeit not in quite the manner hoped for. At the sight of the first judge's clipboard, the oscar raced to the front of the tank and went into its typical begging routine. However, in the confines of an 80 1 aquarium, the consequences of this paroxysm of frenzied tail beating and fin wagging were a passable imitation of a ruptured fire hydrant, whose outpourings impartially soaked judge, worksheets, and the immediate surroundings with equal thoroughness. Best in Class went to a pair of demure Turqouise Discus, a contingency that either a substantial meal for the galloping gourmand immediately before judging commenced or a tighter fitting cover might have prevented!
The second area where the individual participant can have an enormous impact upon how effectively his cichlids are displayed is in the techniques of setting up and maintaining his entries. There is a great deal more to this than is immediately evident, as any successful exhibitor of fishes will in an unguarded moment freely admit! The first problem is that of catching the prospective entry in a manner that inflicts no damage to either its finnage or squamation. There is nothing more apt to create a negative impression upon judges and viewers alike than an otherwise attractive fish with torn fins or missing scales. Unlike some fishes, such as arrowanas, whose scales seem to fall like autumn leaves if one looks at them cross-eyed, cichlids to not have a notably deciduous squamation. However, the great strength of large specimens and their tendency to struggle in the net when captured make it very difficult to capture them without inflicting some sort of superficial damage.
The approach best followed to minimize such trauma is a function of the size of the cichlid to be caught and moved. Specimens up to 12.0 cm SL can be safely caught using two very deep fine meshed nets. Remove all possible hiding places from the fish's tank and lower the water level to a point c. 2.0 cm below the upper margin of the net as determined when it is standing vertically in the tank. Using one net as a goad, carefully maneuver the specimen desired into the other net, which should be quickly lifted clear of the water and its contents immediately placed in a prefilled plastic bag. If the depth of the nets used is twice the standard length of the fish to be captured, its weight will cause the material to form a pocket around it that makes struggling virtually impossible. Taken with the fine mesh recommended for such nets, this greatly minimizes the chance that a specimen can tear a fin or dislodge any scales.
Cichlids larger than 12.0 cm SL are too large for the foregoing approach to work reliably. Capturing them unscathed requires a technique made up of equal parts of low cunning and high technology. Obtain from a local retailer one of the very large, heavy ply clear plastic bags used to ship box lot orders of fish. After removing any obstacles or hiding places from the fish's tank, lower the water level until it is no more than 2.0 cm above the proposed entry's elevated dorsal fin. Slip the bag into the water and move its open mouth slowly towards the fish to be captured. Take care to leave no space beneath the lower edge of the bag's mouth and the tank bottom. Relatively slow moving cichlids such as discus and uaru can often be scooped up without any additional persuasion being applied to make them swim into the open bag.
In most other cases, two sets of hands will be required to effect the capture, one to hold the bag, the other to maneuver the fish into it. Once the fish is well inside, lift the mouth of the bag from the water. The captive is now enclosed within a smooth-walled container where his efforts to escape are unlikely to provoke injury. Bag and contents can then be transferred to a waiting Styrofoam shipping box for the trip to the show site. Regardless of size, entries should be transported to the show one per plastic bag. Before he moves his fish, the exhibitor must, at some point, decide whether to rely upon the available water supply at the show site or else bring a volume of water from home sufficient to house his entries. This is why I emphasized earlier the desirability of the show committee supplying water chemistry data to participants well ahead of time. Moving large volumes of water is a messy and exhausting task. Hence it makes sense to carry one's own water to the fish show only if the difference in chemical make-up between the two sources is so great that the well-being of the fish will be seriously affected, while on-the-spot modifications of the show site water are not feasible. Most Tanganyikan cichlids, for example, require very hard alkaline water. Bringing available tap water up to standard through the use of commercial salts is hardly practical at fish shows because of the length of time required to put them completely into solution up to four days in some instances. The exhibitor clearly has little choice in such circumstances but to bring his entries' water from home. In my experience, dwarf cichlids, regardless of their point of origin, also show better if set up in their original tank water. Mercifully they require a much smaller volume of it than do their larger relatives! The generality of cichlids does not require such extreme measures. As long as pH and hardness are within 0.5 units and 50.0 ppm of one another respectively, they can be expected to adjust quickly enough to new water to look their best for the public.
When actually setting up the show tank, it is wise to fill it with water a few degrees Centigrade warmer than ultimately desired. There are a number of tasks to be done before the fish can be introduced and the water will cool somewhat while they are being accomplished. Additionally, dissolved chlorine escapes more readily from warmer water. The first of these tasks is to set up the tank's filter and "polish" its water. In many parts of the country, it may take several days for a substantial volume of freshly drawn tap water to lose a noticeable turbidity. At a fish show, there simply isn't time enough to allow nature to take its course. A diatomaceous earth filter, on the other hand, will "scrub" 40 1 of water crystal clear in about 45 minutes. The ability to accelerate the water clearing process is one of the few cogent arguments to be made for investing in such a unit. The exhibitor who doesn't have a diatomaceous earth filter should beg, borrow, or steal one from a friend who has. The end result is well worth the trouble.
Keeping a display tank's water crystal clear for the three to five days of the typical fish show is a much bigger problem for the exhibitor of cichlids than it is for those hobbyists showing other warm water fish. Even on a regime of reduced food intake, cichlids particularly large cichlids produce copious amounts of both solid and liquid wastes. A corner box filter may suffice for dwarf cichlids, but even a pair of 10.0 cm SL Aequidens or Haplochromis is apt to overload such a unit's capacity. The best filters to use in cichlid display tanks are outside power filters. These are capable of handling tanks from 60 l to 800 l capacity, depending upon rated output. Charged with a Dacron© filter pad and a chemically active medium, such as Poly-Filter©, such a unit will maintain both water clarity and an acceptable dissolved metabolite level for the duration of a fish show. Remember that the intake tubes of many such units are vulnerable to the ministrations of really large cichlids. I have elsewhere suggested means of protecting both heaters and intake siphons against such casual vandalism (Loiselle, 1980).
Once the filter is functioning, the tank's heater should be installed. Regardless of assurances from the organizing committee about temperature regulation at the show site, the exhibitor should bring a heater for each tank he intends to set up. The heater should have been pre-set for the desired temperature in each entry's tank by a process of calibration within its home tank. Once the desired reading is obtained, the temperature control knob should be taped into immobility. Thus when the time comes to plug the heater into the display tank, no fussing is required to get the temperature setting where it should be. Taping down the control knob also protects the fish against casual tampering with the thermostat setting during the show, a frequent source of fatalities.
The final area over which the exhibitor has effective control is in the choice of foods and the frequency with which he feeds his fish. Neither the judges nor the viewing public takes away a favorable impression of fish displayed in a tank whose water has gone turbid from overfeeding. If water quality is to be preserved and the fish are to remain responsive to their surroundings, they should be fed only live food, and that sparingly. A single meal the night before judging will hold any large to medium-sized cichlid for several days. Smaller cichlids should get a light meal daily, as they lack the metabolic reserves of their larger relatives and a fast of several days can thus be stressful to them. My preferred menu is feeder goldfish for the larger piscivorous species and live adult brine shrimp for everyone else. Well-washed Tubifex worms should be considered a last-ditch substitute, to be used only if no other live foods are available. A final observation on this aspect of showing fish: Seasoned show participants always feed their own fish. This not only gives them complete control over the amount of food introduced into the tank, but also allows them to monitor other variables at the same time.
Fish shows have always occupied a central place in the activities of aquarium societies. This is hardly surprising, for such exhibitions afford the skillful aquarist a means of gaining the recognition due his expertise while publicizing the hobby to a larger number of potential participants than could be reached by other means. As long as typical show conditions discriminate against their effective display, cichlids will continue to be denied the advantages if such a forum and cichlid fanciers will remain at a disadvantage relative to competitors showing fish in other classes. If both organizing committees and individual exhibitors will implement the suggestions offered herein, I am confident that, in the near future, many more cichlid fanciers will be able to point to a fish show as the place of their decisive encounter with these colorful, exciting and behaviorally fascinating fishes.
- Loiselle. P.V. 1979. On dither fish, F.A.M.A. 2(11): 23-27.
- Loiselle. P.V. 1980. Giant predatory cichlids: The true guapotes. F.A.M.A. 3(8): 39-47 et seq.