8: convict companions

by Paul Veenvliet
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8: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Wed Dec 10, 2008 4:02 am

To dither or not to dither

I decided to make a separate subject with some information about dithers. I plan to continue this subject with personal experience with dithers in my aquarium. Dithers are fish that are housed in the same aquarium with cichlids. Cichlid-keepers commonly keep dither-fish because:

- it looks “more natural” when there are different species of fish present

- the presence of some actively swimming fish seems to tell the cichlids that there is no immediate danger around: many cichlids are less shy in the presence of dithers

- dithers elict some territorial behaviour of some cichlids, but less than a fellow cichlid would: they give cichlids something “to do”

Of course the welfare of dither fish also has to be considered, and they have to be carefully seleted for this reason. For instance gouramis are unsuitable companions for central american cichlids: they look too cichlid-like and practically “invite” agressive territorial reactions while at the same time gouramis are slow-moving fish that have difficulties evading a territorial cichlid. So a gourami would get badly beaten up or ends up dead (yes, there are exeptions to this, but these are few). In general dithers need to be:

- not-cichlid-like in appearance and behaviour: this means that they elict less violent territorial responses from the cichlids. In the best case they are totally ignored.

- able to move and manouver fast in case of cichlid agression (e.g. fish with long flowing fins are not suitable)

- they need to stand similar water conditions, temperatures and so on, as the cichlids.

- the best is when they won’t compete with the cichlids for the use of shelters

- they should not be very rare or endangered species because these should be kept separate for the purpose of breeding (typically eggs/offspring of dithers = cichlidfood)

- optional: they could be selected on basis of origin: many cichlid keepers like the idea that dithers come from the same continent or even from the same river as their cichlid “neighbours”

- optional, but for me important: they should leave the aquarium-decoration alone (no plant-eaters please), but many cichlid keepers don’t use life plants so this criterium is not that important.

This leaves a wide variety of species to choose from. Very popular are: silver dollars (plant eaters!), livebearers (their young end up as cichlid food), some larger tetra’s (some of these are plant-eaters) and danios.

For now I close zebrafish, which is a species of danio (Danio rerio). Zebrafish don’t encounter cichlids in nature, because they originate from a nearly cichlid-devoid continent: Asia. Nevertheless zebrafish have a number of characters that make them exellent companions for non-fish-eating cichlids: besides all the above mentioned they sleep at the water surface, which puts them out of the cichlids’ way at night (most cichlids sleep at ground-level or in shelters). Also: I had zebrafish already in another aquarium so it was a simple move. I like zebrafish for their flexible bevaviour: they can switch in an instance between territoriality and and a “schooling-mode” depending on the presence of perceived danger.
zebrafish.jpg
I recently added a single male swordtail (Xiphophorus helleri). In the petshop they almost refused selling this fish, saying that it’s a schooling fish that should not be kept alone. I told the people that I wanted to try with one before adding more because want to see the convicts’ reaction first. This is certainly the case, but another thing is that male swordtails are not schooling fish at all: they are rather solitary, territorial fish that socialize with female swordtails when they can, but either fight or avoid other males. Keeping a single male is not so far of, but because it goes well, I plan to add females in the future.
sword.jpg
This swordtail nicely illustrates what happens when you add an unfamiliar dither fish species to a cichlid-aquarium. Both species have to learn: the cichlids that it’s a harmless fish and the dither that it should not swim into the core of the cichlids territory. This leads to confrontations in the first days, after which peace returns and both species ignore each other (or that's what you hope for). In this case the swordtail got bitten in it’s tail-spike and lost a part of the yellow-inner-finrays. The swordtail responded by hiding for a day (I think that spike-damage = ego-damage because the spike plays a crucial role in swordtail courtship - meaning that a damaged tail-spike is something that a swordtail can't ignore). The tailfin is healing nicely and all is well now. Interestingly: the adition of a few extra zebrafish didn’t provoke any reaction from the convicts: they were already familiar with the species and appear not to distinguish between individual zebrafish (the first zebrafish which I placed together with these convicts got some torn fins in the first days, which healed quickly). It is important to introduce dithers at a time when cichlids don’t defend young: when they have young cichlids are much more agressive and may well attack dithers that were ignored before. This change can literally happen from one moment to the next and only dithers that know both the cichlids and the escape-routes in the aquarium should be exposed to this kind of violence.

One more note: aquarium-size is important. In my 120 cm aquarium I dare to keep some dithers with convicts. In the former 60 cm aquarium even zebrafish got beaten up and occasionally ended up dead. In any case they became skinny because of too much stress caused by the single female convict which I kept at that time. So if the aquarium is too small, forget dithers, and forget cichlids for that matter.
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Re: 11: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Mon Dec 15, 2008 4:20 am

Problematic plecos

Plecos are catfish from South America, which have a sucker-like mouth and a body which is armoured with bony plates. The name “pleco” s derived from a species which is common in trade: Hypostomus plecostomus, another English name is “suckermouth catfish”. There are many species and they are often recommended as companions for cichlids, including convict cichlids. What amazes me is how lightly they are recommended, without much reference to their needs or to nature conservation aspects. For the purpose of aquarium keeping, plecos can be divided in three groups, each with their own problems: “common plecos”, “expensive plecos” and “Ancistrus “sp3””.

Common plecos are three species: Hypostomus plecostomus, Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus and Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps, at least these names are used in trade. They are bred in very large numbers, reasonably cheap and completely unsuitable for aquariums. First: many youngsters die, but the survivors grow large. They should grow to over 50 cm, even those that are retarded by aquarium conditions row to over 30 cm. They are schooling fish, which means that they should be kept in large groups of at least 10 adults to be able to show their natural schooling tendency. I dare to say that practically nobody keeps them in a 1-species school of over 10 adults. Instead, single individuals survive in cichlid aquaria. They need to eat a lot and, for what I see, are commonly underfed in aquaria. But they are hardy and may survive this treatment for many years. I believe that these species represent a huge animal welfare problem and should not be sold at all.

Expensive plecos have become something like a fashion item lately. There are many species, often with fantastic colours. Practically all come directly from the wild: they are not bred in captivity. Adults are caught in nature, but we have no information whatshowever about their conservation status, with one exeption: Hypancistrus zebra is considered threatened and is included in the CITES appendices. This should be a warning: it is possible that more of these fish are threatened because of uncontrolled taking from nature, but we simply don’t know. Because of their high price they are often kept as single specimens, and often we don’t know much about their behaviour. Probably part of these species are schooling fish. I think that this is not the way we should extract fish from nature for our pleasure.

Ancistrus sp3, usually called Ancistrus dolichopterus in trade (which is the name of a different species) is an exeption. It is reasonably small, not schooling (they are solitary and maintain a strict hierarchy) and captive bred in huge numbers. So if you want to keep a pleco with cichlids, this is the only one I recommend.
ancis.jpg
Last edited by illustrator on Wed Jan 28, 2009 5:15 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: 11: convict companions

Post by Bas Pels » Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:10 am

illustrator wrote: Common plecos are three species: Hypostomus plecostomus, Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus and Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps, at least these names are used in trade. They are bred in very large numbers, reasonably cheap and completely unsuitable for aquariums. First: many youngsters die, but the survivors grow large. They should grow to over 50 cm, even those that are retarded by aquarium conditions row to over 30 cm. They are schooling fish, which means that they should be kept in large groups of at least 10 adults to be able to show their natural schooling tendency. I dare to say that practically nobody keeps them in a 1-species school of over 10 adults. Instead, single individuals survive in cichlid aquaria. They need to eat a lot and, for what I see, are commonly underfed in aquaria. But they are hardy and may survive this treatment for many years. I believe that these species represent a huge animal welfare problem and should not be sold at all.
Although in general the above mentioned fishes are not well suited for aquarium keeping, cichlid keepers are quite often the one exception

We have large tenks, and these tanks are very well suited for these fishes. I have 6 Pt gibbyceps, the oldes around 20 years of age, and still healthy. I would estimate it has some 10 years of life, and hopefully more, ahead of him/her

The others are all bought 4.5 years back, and now at a nice size of 40 cm.

A 800 l tank is large enough for 1, and I am lucky the 2 in my 2800 l tank accept each other. The problem is, I never, ever saw them schooling, even though I stareted with the group of 6 in the 2800 l tank. Are you certain the withessed schooling in Mexico is not a result of overpopulation, due to lack of predation???

Ancistrus is just too little to survive combining with say Parachromis dovii, or Amphiliophus citrinellum

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Re: 11: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:34 am

I was actually hoping that someone would come with this argument, which is very much correct. In a way plecos remind me of terrapins like red eared and yellow bellied sliders: is it really all right to trade huge numbers of a species which are then kept in a very unsatisfactory way, just because a few exeptional specialists can keep them in a very good way? Or should we rather say that such species should not be in trade, after which a few specialists "suffer"?

I am not an animal rights activist, just an aquarium keeper who doesn't like to see fish suffer. Everytime I see juvenile common plecos in a petshop I wonder what their future will look like. Information on the petshop-aquaria tells which temperature they need and from which continent they come, but not what their normal adult size is. My guess is that very few cichlid keepers with 1200 liter tanks actually buy them, rather they feel sorry for the fish and accept them from people who have a "large" 200 liter community aquarium and can't keep them any longer.

p.s. I am not sure, but is 6 enough to start schooling behaviour?

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Re: 11: convict companions

Post by Bas Pels » Mon Dec 15, 2008 9:29 am

illustrator wrote: I am not sure, but is 6 enough to start schooling behaviour?
apparently not

I once had 30 Vieja sysnsplium in a tank (all at 3 cm :lol: ) which did show how cichlid schooling goes - and now I would like to have a school of some Vieja once - but first I'll need a swimingpool for them

Regarding your remarks on fish suffering, or a few specialists suffering, on a duch forum we actually have the same discussion

In my eyes, a permit system sould present the best of both worlds: imports are banned, unless you show you can take good care of the fishes

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Re: 11: convict companions

Post by Lisachromis » Mon Dec 15, 2008 10:23 am

I also have a comment here on the plecos, but the bristlenose you mentioned. Ancistrus sp3.

Many Ancistrus look alike. How do you know you have sp3? The reason I ask is that I don't know of anyone in NA using that designation for their common Ancistrus. We have several Ancistrus species in the hobby here. Most people use A. temminckii or just a common name of bristlenose or bushynose. I also wonder what species is in the hobby over here. I wonder if they are the same as the ones in Europe. I'm pretty sure they're different than the Australian Ancistrus since those ones tend to reach lengths of 10" if well cared for. Here they can range from 3-5".

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Re: 11: convict companions

Post by Bas Pels » Mon Dec 15, 2008 12:57 pm

Ancistrus sp 3 is a name coming from www.planetcatfish.com. On that board the fish is now referred to as A sp cf cirrhosus

I do, agree that not all common ancistrus are the same, and especially those in NA will most likely differ from those in Europe, and those in australia will be a third variety

However, the fishes are almost certain a blend of several species, and the parent species will not be retraceble.

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Re: 11: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Tue Dec 16, 2008 4:23 am

Ancistrus & hybridisation

The tradename over here is still Ancistrus dolichopterus (petshops in Slovenia, Europe). I am not so sure that this "European Ancistrus" is a hybrid: in case of a hybrid I would expect to see (much more) variation in the ofspring, unless it would be a hybrid which is selectively bred for many generations for certain specific characters (which I doupt). Apart from individual variation in spot-pattern, I see not much variation. What is there is three mutations: albinistic (overall yellowish with faintly visible pattern), partially leucistic (with irregular dirty-yellowish patches - I actualy think that there might be 2 different partially leucistic mutations around: one with more clear coloured and one with more dirty coloured patches) and long-finned (veiltail, mostly with deformed fins and regularly combined with albinism).

Occasionally I see albino's which are much larger than "standard", which this supports the "hybrid/several species" idea. Maybe these have a different origin?

I am not sure where the "European Ancistrus" are bred, most likely either Singapore or Czech republic (there's quite a lot of breeding by hobbyists, however, the large numbers in petshops are imported through regular trade).
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Re: 10: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Tue Dec 16, 2008 12:23 pm

Dithers as a risky experiment

Another note about keeping convict cichlids in a kind of "community aquarium" like I do: this is risky. In general it goes well untill the convict cichlids start breeding, after that, it depends. Wrong timing of introduction = dead fish, Wrong choise = dead fish. Bad luck = dead fish. Good luck = dithers have to use a smaller part of the aquarium while the cons are breeding and have to evade attacks from time to time.

In the past I had Ameca splendens with breeding convicts in a 1 meter aquarium. This went reasonably, with occasional torn tail fins in Ameca. We'll see how my current aquarium goes.

I just added the last fish: 3 female swordtails. The convicts clearly got the point that these were "new fish" and they showed some "hesitating agression" towards the new swordtails, even though they are the samecolour variety as the male (which I have for some weeks now). With this I mean slow atacks, not the kind of violence that one con shows when chasing another con out of the centre of it's terriory. Neverteless, the female swordtails lost some scales on the first day (which grow back in some weeks).

Would be nice to get an overview of experiences from various keepers who have cons & dithers together.
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Re: 10: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Wed Dec 17, 2008 2:56 am

Fladdering behaviour of dithers

I noticed a behavioural difference that puts swordtails more at risk compared to zebrafish: in the first days swordtails tend to swim up and down along the aquarium glass (I think all livebearers do this, and probably also most cichlids). I am not sure why they do this, but I think that it serves to get to know the borders of the new surroundings. This behaviour is very familiar to every aquarium keeper, but surprisingly few times mentioned in literature. It is desctibed in a Dutch monography on sticklebacks, by Maarten 't Hart, where he calls it "fladdering". During "fladdering" fish seem les aware of their surroundings and they also swim frequently into lower corners of the aquarium. Both are risky: they don't see some atacks coming and they are in a bad position to escape. After a few days the fladdering behaviour stops, although a similar behaviour may develop later as "food begging". Food beging is typically carried out near the place where fish expect food or at least wide out in the most open areas of the aquarium glass. Because of this, food begging is not very risky (fish end up less in corners).

I am not sure why zebrafish don't fladder in my aquarium. Part may be aquarium size: in larger aquariums new fish tend to fladder les. Maybe 120 cm is above a non-fladderng treshold for zebrafish but not for swordtails? Another possibility is that zebrafish have a more sensitive lateral line system and, because of this, are more aware of the location of aquarium glass. This would mean that there is no need to fladder. However, zebrafish put themself at rist in early morning, when they spawn (almost every morning in well fed adult zebrafish, only so early that many aquarium keepers miss it).

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Re: 10: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Fri Jan 16, 2009 5:58 am

Dithers compared

Now that have two different dither species in my aquarium, I decided to compare which is better suitable as companion for convict cichlids. The two dithers are zebrafish (Danio rerio) and swordtails (Xiphophorus helleri). Both species are often mentioned as potential dithers for cichlid aquariums, they are widely available and not very expensive. Both adapt readily to a wide range of aquarium circumstances.

The young male convict cichlid »Wilhelm« was in an territorial/courting mood with breeding colours, and I focussed n his behaviour towards other fish. Other convict cichlids were in a neutral mood (more pale/less contrasting stripes) and chased other fish less often. What i did is very simple: I counted how often Wilhelm chased another fish during 6 periods of 15 minutes. At the start I had all kinds of statistics in mind, but I cannot really use these because by the end Wilhelm changed to a neutral mood and became less agressive, probably because I started feeding less often.

The outcome:

Wilhelm chased other fish 157 times in this observation periods. This was devided as follows:

123 (78%) times he chased a smaller convict cichlid (of which there were 8 present)

31 (20%) times he chased a swordtail (of which there were 4 present)

1 (1%) time he chased a zebrafish (of which there were 11 present)

2 (1%) times he chased a bristlenose cat (Ancistrus) (of which there were 5 present).


Convict cichlid "Wilhelm" frequently swam past a swordtail in order to hase a small convict cichlid. Chases to convict cichlids tended to be faster and over a longer distance than chases to swordtails. The single chase to a zebrafish appeared not very agressive, more like the zebrafish was accidentally in the way. None of the fish got wounded during the observation times but the swordtails sometimes lose scales during nighttime. Even though they are chased very frequently, small convict cichlids did not lose scales, but they did obtain slight damages in their tail fins (outside of the observation periods).

Clearly, zebrafish are much more suitable as companions for convict cichlids, compared to swordtails. Bristlenoses are also OK.

I think that the difference might be explained by a combination of differences in swimming depth (zebrafish tend to swim closer to the surface, away from convict cichlids - which swim closer to the bottom) and swimming style (swordtails swim more cichlid-like with their brest fins waving while zebrafish have a more trout-like swimming style, mainly moving their tail-fin moving left-right). This would be "testable", but for such test I don't have enough space (nice student subject! See what happens with mosquito-fish (Gambusia), which swim close to the surface with swordtail-like movements and with redside barb (Puntius bimaculatus) which swims close to the bottom with a zebrafish-like swimming style).

And a side-note:
Wilhelm carried out a maximum of 48 chases in a 15 minute observation period, which is a staggering 3.2 chases/minute. In between he managed to court the adult (much larger) female convict cichlid about as frequently (but I didn't count this, because I focussed on teritorial chases). I guess that this is why convit cichlids are called »agressive« …
Last edited by illustrator on Fri Jan 16, 2009 8:51 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: 10: convict companions

Post by Bas Pels » Fri Jan 16, 2009 8:30 am

Good observations

However, looking at your data, I would rather say neither zebrafish nor swortails are good ditherfish

I do, however realize you wrote companions, not ditherfish

Why would I want to put any fish in a convict tank? In my eyes, to withdraw agression fromo cichlids to fish which can cope with this agression, for instance because thay are fast enough not to be bothered

Well, I read in your measurements both species were unable to withdraw agression from cichlids.

If one would only add fishes in order to have the tank look less empty, the lack of agression towards sworttails or zebrafish is, however, positive

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Re: 10: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Fri Jan 16, 2009 8:49 am

if a fish is chased (but not harmed), this means that some agression is drawn towards the other fish. Of course it is important to see of the chased fish withdraws to a small corner of the aquarium and doesn't dare to get out of that corner (stress!). This is not the case in my aquarium (at least not now, will see how this goes when the male convict is larger).

I thing that dithers also have other functions, like "reassuring that there are no predators".

I think that it is normal for cichlids to co-occur with small schooling fish. Because I like plants, I rather don't try with mexican tetras (which i have actually never seen in the lfs over here).

And I think that it is better to try to combine cchlids with non-cichlids than to try to combine several cichlid species in a relatively small aquarium (120 cm). But this is really just the "I like to see more fish" idea.

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Re: 8: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Wed Mar 18, 2009 7:54 am

Guppies are not suitable as companions for convict cichlids: they are food. Since I am breeding guppies in my smaller aquarium, I have some surpluss every now and then, and sometimes put these in the aquarium with convict cichlids. Most are immediately eaten, and the rest disappears in the first night. Only occasionally one survives the first night and manages to stay alive, quite unharmed, for considerable time. These guppies have learned to avoid the convict cichlids, but especially, they behave like a not-scated-healthy fish. At this moment one survives for more than a month. Despite the fact that occasionally one manages to survive, guppies are really not suitable as companions for convict cichlids: they move too slow and are simply easy "victims".
The guppy that survives for a surprisingly long time in the cichlid-aquarium: not at all wildtype but a "golden" one with elongated fins.
The guppy that survives for a surprisingly long time in the cichlid-aquarium: not at all wildtype but a "golden" one with elongated fins.

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Re: 8: convict companions

Post by illustrator » Tue Nov 17, 2009 10:26 am

Even after stopping to keep the species (due to a combination of disease problems - partly solved by keeping only a single pair - and extreme shyness- caused by keeping only a single pair), I still like to add some notes here and there.

As problems seemed to multibly, I had more and more algae growing in the aquarium. Of course this had to do with nutrients, and with the fact that my TL-lights neede to be replaces (but that was somethin I only remembered a while later). But as a small step I added a chinese algae eater Gyrinocheilus aymonieri of about 8 cm. This turned out to be the best dither fish of all: very fast, alert and always "in the way" of the convicts so that the cichlids did chase it, but they didn't have a chance to touch it. Not sure what would happen with an adult algae eater of over 20 cm though. In my opinion this species is better suited as companion for cichlids than numerous L-number-catfish (which are armoured, but basically can get beaten up without much of a defence other than their armour). The algae eater did eat algae, but not enough and also not all kinds of algae...
Chinese algae eater
Chinese algae eater

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Re: 8: convict companions

Post by Dawid Hybsz » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:02 am

Very interesting topic.

I recently added a single male swordtail (Xiphophorus helleri). In the petshop they almost refused selling this fish, saying that it’s a schooling fish that should not be kept alone. I told the people that I wanted to try with one before adding more because want to see the convicts’ reaction first. This is certainly the case, but another thing is that male swordtails are not schooling fish at all: they are rather solitary, territorial fish that socialize with female swordtails when they can, but either fight or avoid other males. Keeping a single male is not so far of, but because it goes well, I plan to add females in the future.


Well, kind of cichlids live with Xiphophorus (and other similar fish: Poecilia, Xenotoca etc) in many wild biotope and ecosystems. The only question is in what form - maybe to a food? :D Can have such doubts.

I sometimes experimenting with the connections of fish in one aquarium. I also tried this combination, thinking that it still fails wrong (thinking that its a bad idea). In the 200 liters of Convicts (convicts was diffrent ages - a young and a old) I let a few pieces of Xiphophorus helleri (males and females). And to my surprise, everything was about (everything was ok).

My observations:

1. Fry Xiphophorus was not in such conditions the chances of survival, it was immediately eaten (Convicts eats fry/young X.)

2. The aquarium must be large enough. When Convict fish start spawn, another fish must has yet to be enough space. (Xiphophorus may not be vulnerable to attacks Convicts which guarding fry).

3. Remember Always in these situations is an experiment. We must be ready to fish-out when something goes wrong.

4. In my opinion, best to succeed is large aquariums. If bigger aquarium it better.


I was happy with the experiment. And the next time, I let in teh aquarium Poecilia reticulata. This was a mistake. Convicts treated Poecilia as a food (Convicts etas and killed Poecilia). Why Poecilia? Why not Xiphophorus? - I dont know! - this is the topic for discussion and speculation.

If anyone has doubts as to whether to Cichlids and Xiphophorus in one aquarium is a good idea, please looks here (Xiphophorus with a big Cichlid, with greater than Convicts) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmIgIISZ ... re=related


Personaly, I prefer wild coloration of Xiphophorus - subdued colors are better then red-Xiphophorus (better to compose with cichlids/convicts)

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