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The Tropheus Genus: A Beginner's Experience

By , 1998. printer
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Classification: Captive maintenance, Lake Tanganyika.

Introduction

The Tropheus genus is truly amazing. There are literally dozens of distinct color varieties and species that comprise this group. The colors and patterns simply defy description. Being an avid African cichlid enthusiast, it is hard not to come across them in our hobby. I now find it hard to believe, but at one time I actually thought Tropheus were unattractive and of no interest to me. I soon found that these guys have quite a following and even that there are a great number of hobbyists that keep them exclusively. I had to find out why.

I cannot begin to explain how entertaining these fishes became

In hindsight, it occurred to me that there are a number of people out there that are interested in Tropheus but have not taken the plunge for many of the same reasons as I had had. Let it be known that I am by no means an expert. You can also tell I'm no writer either, so bear with me. Although I feel that I have learned a great deal, my point here is not to teach you as an authority, but to share what I have learned and to urge you to experience and learn about these wonderful fishes for yourself.

Although I am somewhat knowledgeable in cichlids from Lakes Malawi and Victoria, I have always had a particular interest in cichlids from Lake Tanganyika and chose to focus on them early on. For one, they didn't seem near as common and I wanted to be different. The first Tanganyikan species that I ever kept was Neolamprologus pulcher "daffodil". I was quite successful with them and knew I was on to something. In the time that followed, I acquired numerous other Lamprologini species such as leleupi, tretocephalus, multifasciatus, calvus, cylindricus, buescheri, regani, ornatus, marlieri, etc. I have since bred many of them and have enjoyed keeping these fishes immensely. Of course like most of us, I was always looking for new species.

My First Tropheus

As many of you know, locating Tanganyikans other than staples like leleupi and brichardi can be difficult at best. As a result, I had turned to out of state suppliers a number of times, having the fish shipped via same day airfreight. I had also bought and traded from fellow aquarists. I've found that buying or trading from a fellow hobbyist is by far the best way and the cheapest. It is not hard to send a few e-mail's "fishing" for sources (pun intended) and is well worth the effort.

I was getting ready to place an order from a supplier when I noticed that he had a few Tropheus species at very reasonable prices. I had seen these species for sale at shops for 3 to 4 times as much money. In fact, originally, the high cost of these fishes was a major reason I had not looked into them further. However, by this time my interest was sparked and I had done quite a bit of reading on them. With this low cost incentive I decided that I would add some to my order "just for the heck of it". But what kind and how many?

By nature I am a knowledge sponge and love to read. I did a lot of research on the Internet and in the books that were available to me at the time. It amazed me as to the lack of info that is out there. Although there is still some good info available, it pales to the amount readily available about Malawi cichlids. I also noticed that a lot of the info out there does not necessarily agree with each other. Basically, it is agreed that the Tropheus genus is comprised of the 5 species duboisi, moorii, brichardi, annectens (includes polli), and the catchall "sp. black" or "sp. aff. moorii" which basically means associated with but not conclusively placed as a species. Remember, I am not a scientist and there is some dispute concerning the taxonomy of the genus. For our purposes it is of little importance anyhow as Tropheus are more commonly known and described by their variant names. Usually these names are nothing more than the locality where the variant can be found in the wild such as Bulu Point. There is more to it but I will leave this for your own discovery. Some other variant or trade names you will come across include Ikola Kaiser, Black Bemba, Chimba, Kalambo, Moliro, Katoto, Livua, Nkamba Bay, Mpimbwe, Kipili, Ujiji, Tanzanian Red Rainbow, Chaitika, etc. etc. Trust me. To try to list them all here is futile. There are too many. And keep in mind these are all different color variants of the various 5 species.

I did find that all agree that Tropheus are highly gregarious, social fish in nature and require that a large group be kept to simulate natural conditions. T. duboisi are somewhat of an exception though, and are not as closely tied to a group as the other species. They seem to live at a greater depth than other Tropheus species where their staple diet of algae is not as plentiful in any one place at any given time. As a result, they travel from place to place (still locally) to obtain enough food. The theory goes that this behavior has affected their social structure to being more suited to a nomadic-like lifestyle with smaller groups or pairs. With this in mind, I decided to add 4 T. duboisi to my current order.

It is interesting to note that I have since learned that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to get so few individuals even if they are T. duboisi. One of the reasons that a large group is required is that once Tropheus start to mature they can be quite aggressive, as can many African Cichlids. Large groups help to dissipate this aggression. The fact that T. duboisi often live in the wild in small nomadic groups or pairs does not necessarily mean that it is a good idea in the relative confines of a tank. The male to female ratio plays a role here as well and will be mentioned later.

The Arrival

It is well accepted that Tropheus do best in large aquariums (at least 55 gallons). At the same time, I have read of people keeping them in tanks as small as 29 gallons. Either way, big or small, I certainly think that you should consider your group size and chose a tank accordingly. I personally am a firm believer that larger tanks are better. Nonetheless, the only tank I had free at the time was a 30 gal long so that's where they went. I figured that if it didn't work out I would move them later. After all this was just an experiment. I prepared the tank with fine natural gravel and made a pile of rocks in each corner with a few passages in each. Tropheus are generally aggressively territorial, particularly adult males. Rock piles make perfect "territories" for them so long as the piles are separated.

Like all Tanganyikans, these guys like hard water with a relatively high pH. No problem for me. It comes right out of the tap that way at my place. I only have to treat it with a little NovAqua® to remove chlorine. I also sometimes add a little non-iodized salt. I really don't see any difference if I add it or if I don't. You will find a lot of opinions on the topic of salt. I feel that if you already have hard water, you don't need it. Unfortunately I do not know what my hardness actually is, but I assure you it is very hard. I get calcium deposits on everything. Oh yeah, my water naturally has a pH. of 8.2, which is fine for Tropheus.

The shipment arrived after an unusually long bag time (they were errantly bumped from two flights). I understood that Tropheus are somewhat "touchy" and stress easily, often leading to death from the dreaded bloat (which I will bring up later), so I was very concerned. I opened the box and all of the fish in the shipment looked fine including the T. duboisi. They were drugged and bagged with O2 and surely this helped. I did the usual acclimation routine of floating the bags to match temperature (normally 80 degrees F in my tanks) and then, in a bucket, released them into a small amount of my tank water. I then added a little more tank water over 15 minutes or so. After 20 or 30 minutes I gently netted them and released them into their unlit tank. This is supposed to help calm them until they settle. It was nighttime, so I just left them alone until morning.

The next morning, I rushed in to see how things were going. The T. duboisi looked fine and were actively swimming about. They looked hungry. On the subject of diet, it is very important to understand that Tropheus are algae grazers and have a rather delicate digestive system. You see, they have a rather long gut that is necessary to extract nutrients from their natural algal diet. If you feed them foods that are too easily digested it causes blockages which can lead to bloat. Another word of caution is to remember to feed in small amounts. Overfeeding of even the correct diet can quickly lead to bloat. Most people skip a feeding once a week as a sort of gut cleansing. It's generally not a good idea for young fish though.

Knowing this I had purchased OSI Spirulina flake for use as their staple diet. I fed them twice daily by crushing a small amount between my fingers and sprinkling it into the tank. They immediately went for it. It is likely they had been fed this previously, as it is generally the most popular food choice. The only other food I fed them was an occasional small amount of frozen adult brine shrimp. This may seem as a contradiction to what I have said above until you think about it. Adult brine shrimp have a lot of roughage in the form of their shells and as such are acceptable in moderation. Many breeders in Europe feed a shrimp-mix daily but I don't think this is a natural way to keep them. Of note, it is generally believed that Tropheus surely do ingest some animal life as they graze for algae in the wild.

Bloat is a big subject among Tropheus keepers and from the info out there, you would believe that it is a very common, unavoidable reality for Tropheus (other fishes do suffer from bloat including many Malawi mbuna). Bloat appears to be due to incorrect diet and/or environment. It is also thought that stress in general can bring on bouts of bloat. I have not had a single case (knock on wood) because of the care that I have taken and surely a bit of luck. So please, do not be discouraged when you hear about bloat. I feel that this is an exaggerated problem. There are some cures on the market such as Clout® but most are very harsh and often ineffective. Prevention is the key.

We Were Hooked

All T. duboisi fry are basically black with numerous white polka dots. This by itself makes them quite attractive. You will notice that I have started using "we". My wife, who generally is uninterested in my fish, noticed these fellows immediately. "Boy those guys are cute". As duboisi mature they slowly lose their dots and change to the mature markings. My T. duboisi "Maswa" will each eventually become basically black with a mid-body vertical yellow-white stripe and a blue highlighted face. Watching them slowly change as they grow is proving to be particularly interesting.

What we found most interesting though, was their peculiar activity. They were always busily swimming around, almost as though they were socializing, which is actually the truth. Tropheus are known to form strict hierarchies. Once this forms, it is said that it is not a good idea to add or remove any individuals, as it will upset this structure. There was a fair amount of fighting that took place among my "Maswa" but nothing serious. I've witnessed much more brutal fighting among other African cichlids. They simply were testing each other to see who was the boss. Once that was established, only minor skirmishes have taken place.

I cannot begin to explain how entertaining these fishes became. I was used to cave dwelling species that spend most of their time either hiding in the rocks or trying to kill everything in the tank, even their own mates. These fellows seemed content to freely swim about looking for food. And talk about an algae free tank. These guys are better than any pleco. You can't grow enough for them if you tried. I only have to occasionally clean the front glass of very fine algae that they don't seem to get at very well. These guys were just too cool. We knew then that we were hooked.

Our Interest Grows

We decided immediately that we wanted more Tropheus. This time we were going to do it right. The largest tank I had available was a 75 gallon. We shifted its current occupants to other tanks and set it up for Tropheus. As in all of my tanks, it has medium/fine natural gravel. Again, I built a large rock pile in each end of the tank with at least one main passageway in each pile. As stated earlier, the tank water did not need to be altered. We then went shopping. We checked out the Internet and a few good books and narrowed our choices down to a few that we were definitely interested in. Locating what we were looking for was not quite as easy.

We contacted a previous supplier and found out that he could special order almost anything direct from Africa where Tropheus (and others) are commonly "pond raised" in large cement vats for export. Normally, such exports go through Germany but was not the case here. The species we decided on was T. moorii "Kachese". The price was very reasonable (half what I had seen them advertised elsewhere). Even so, it was still quite expensive considering that we needed to purchase a large number at once. I figured that 15 would be a healthy population for the tank and was about as many as I could afford. I paid up front and the order was placed. We actually did not have to wait too long, as the supplier was about to place an order himself from his African supplier. A week or so passed and I called to find out that the fish had arrived at the US supplier. It was agreed upon that they needed to settle for a week or so before shipping to me. This was to reduce the high stress of oversees travel.

Finally the day arrived that we received the fish. I eagerly rushed home from the airport with the precious cargo. When I got home I repeated the normal acclimation routine. All 15 had arrived alive and in good condition. They were absolutely stunning. Even as 1" fry their delicate colors were beginning to show, particularly as they settled in. It is of interest to know that Tropheus fry usually do not resemble their adult coloration at all, although some do vaguely as is the case with the "Kachese" variant. Unfortunately, we noticed right off that there were a few that were not eating. This can often be a sign of bloat but with no visible signs of actual bloat, I feel that they were highly stressed from their recent multiple journeys.

Within a few days, these four fish died. Maybe it was from bloat but I doubt it. I feel that they were victims of stress. When I purchased the fish I knew that this might happen and simply accepted it. It did not dampen our joy for the remaining 11 fish, which is still a reasonably sized group. Since this incident, we have had no more losses of any kind. We fed these guys the same diet of OSI Spirulina flake and occasional adult brine shrimp and they flourished. They settled in quickly and you could easily see that they had formed a rank hierarchy. Again, there were a few scuffles but nothing major.

Also of interest, this "Kachese" tank contains two Neolamprologus leleupi fry that I missed when I emptied the tank. I know of a European breeder that has N. leleupi in some of his Tropheus tanks so I decided to leave them for a while to see what happens. They do not seem to bother the Tropheus. My only concern is that the N. leleupi may eventually become fry predators and as such I will likely remove them sooner or later. Tropheus breeding is a whole other topic which I will leave to you to learn about on your own.

Fans For Life

We have since cleared a number of our tanks just for Tropheus. We now also have groups of T. moorii "Mpulungu" and T. moorii "Ilangi" that are in 30 gallon long tanks. Our plans are to soon move them to larger tanks. Nonetheless, they seem to be doing just fine in the smaller tanks. Only time will tell. After all we are learning too. Nonetheless, all of our Tropheus are growing and doing well. I have begun to notice some possible aggression problems with the small group of T. duboisi but as I have learned since, I could have expected this to be a possible eventuality as they are starting to mature. I'll have to keep an eye on them and hope for the best.

The most appealing thing about Tropheus is that it will take a lifetime to learn all there is to know about them

To us, the most appealing thing about Tropheus is that it will take a lifetime to learn all there is to know about them. It seems that we could never get bored with them. For that matter, I doubt I could ever own all of the different variants that I am interested in now. Except for a few favorites, we have virtually sold or traded most all of our other Tanganyikans in favor of room for more Tropheus. I am sure when we make future tank additions, most will certainly be filled with new Tropheus species. In my humble opinion, there simply is no description or amount of praise that can give these guys justice. You simply have to experience them for yourselves. We are fans for life.

Conclusion

Making the decision, almost on a whim, to purchase those 4 polka-dotted T. duboisi was the most rewarding thing we have done in all of our fish keeping experiences to date. While there are still many fish keeping adventures out there that we yet to experience, I now see why many look no further than Tropheus. So if you have ever considered these wonderful cichlids, or maybe if you haven't, I want to urge you to give them a try. I am sure you will find them as rewarding as we have.

Below I have compiled a list of advice that I feel is vital to the keeping of Tropheus. Again, I am not claiming to be an expert. I simply want to share my key thoughts.

  • Do not be intimidated by these supposedly difficult fish. I'm not saying that they are easy fish to keep. I am saying that keeping Tropheus can be very rewarding and relatively easy to keep if you follow proper guidelines of diet and environment.

  • Read everything you can get your hands (or your computer on) before purchasing any Tropheus. There is so much to learn about. Be it from experts or amateurs, everyone has something to offer. Certainly you should consider all sources for validity but don't use that as an excuse to ignore or disbelieve what the nonscientific hobbyists has to offer. Take all information into account, study as much as you can, and think for yourself. Experimentation is good anyhow.

  • Don't be turned off by the relatively high cost of Tropheus. For one, if kept properly, they will inevitably breed and you can recoup some of your costs that way. Also consider that trading among fellow enthusiasts can surely save you a lot. Furthermore, I am sure you will soon agree that Tropheus are worth every penny.

  • Always purchase no less than 6-10 individuals of any one species with much larger groups being even better, damn the cost.

  • Use as large a tank as possible. I personally feel that 75 gallons is a perfect size for a single variant group of 15 to 30 individuals, but this is my opinion. Again, experiment.

  • Don't worry about getting the proper sex ratio (male to female) in your group, at least early on. This is a major topic with Tropheus keeping which you will have to read up on yourself. Anyhow, no one can sex Tropheus until they are around 2" or so and this is likely larger than the size at which most are purchased. Obtain a large group of one variant and the "correct" sex ratio often takes care of itself.

  • It is best if you don't mix variants in the same tank until you learn more about them. Tropheus easily interbreed and this is a major no no. This is also a topic that deserves some investigation.

  • I usually change as much as 20 percent of the tank water weekly for my Tropheus. This seems to work just fine. You will find lots of opinions on this topic.

  • Don't be afraid to ask others. Most hobbyists are all too eager to share any information that they have to offer. As often it is difficult to locate local hobbyists that can help, try to make some e-mail contacts. Check with clubs and organizations. I feel that the only truly dumb question is the one that is never asked.

  • Don't be afraid to share your experiences with others, even experts. We all have something to offer. We learn from each other.

There are also many books that have good information. Ad Konings has authored a number of books worth reading that contain information on Tropheus. As for variant identification, I have seen no better than Aqualex's Catalog of Tanganyikan Cichlids. Aqualex also sells a CD format that is supposed to be awesome although it is expensive. These are published in Germany but are available through a few breeders/wholesalers in the US. And of course don't overlook the classics by the likes of Pierre Brichard, Herbert Axelrod etc.

Remember that any sources or products listed here do not necessarily imply endorsement. I am simply sharing what has worked for others and myself. Let your Tropheus adventures begin and have fun!

Citation

Kennelly, Erik A.. (December 30, 2001). "The Tropheus Genus: A Beginner's Experience". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on December 17, 2018, from: https://www.cichlidae.com/article.php?id=163.