Q. I recently purchased some young Bolivian rams. I had never heard of these fish before and I cannot find any information on them in the reference books at my disposal. What can you tell me about the care and breeding of these freshwater ornamental fish?
A. Although Papiliochromis altispinossa was first described in 1911, it only made its debut as an aquarium fish in 1984. Thus, it is absent from references published prior to that time. Originally described as a Crenicara species, its close relationship to Papiliochromis ramirezi was first determined in 1981 by the Swedish ichthyologist Sven Kullander.
The Bolivian ram is somewhat more robust than the more familiar Venezuelan, with males growing to 3 inches from nose to the base of the tail fin. Despite its larger adult size, Papiliochromis altispinossa is also an inoffensive, easily bullied cichlid fish whose tankmates must be selected with care. The smaller Apistogramma and Crenicara species make good companions for the Bolivian ram, but other cichlid fish are simply too aggressive. Papiliochromis altispinossa gets along well with the smaller labyrinth fishes, and poses no threat to the smallest characins and cyprinids. A layer of floating plants goes a long way toward providing this species with a sense of security. Rooted plants are tolerated and may even be appreciated by the Bolivian ram, but they do not seem essential to its well-being.
This species prefers soft, neutral to slightly acid water, but will do well under conditions of moderate hardness (up to 10.0 degrees hardness) and alkalinity (pH 7.4). Both Papiliochromis species are very sensitive to dissolved nitrogenous wastes. Light stocking of their quarters and efficient biological filtration in conjunction with frequent partial water changes will maintain water quality at an acceptable level. The Bolivian ram seems to prefer cooler water than its Venezuelan relative. Temperatures of 74 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit are sufficient for ordinary maintenance, with an increase to 85 degrees Fahrenheit for breeding. This fish is not a fussy eater. Flake, freeze-dried, frozen and live fish foods are all taken enthusiastically. Unlike many dwarf cichlid fish, Papiliochromis altispinossa quickly associates the appearance of its keeper with that of fish food, and will learn to “beg” as vigorously as any large Heros or Aequidens.
Female Papiliochromis altispinossa do not sport the intense magenta abdominal blotch that distinguishes female Papiliochromis ramirezi from the males. The coppery orange blush in the shoulder region is usually less intense in female Bolivian rams, while males are usually a bit larger. However, the most reliable aids to sexing this species are differences in fin development. Both the dorsal extensions and the filaments of the lyre-shaped tail fin are much longer in males than in females.
A flat surface, such as that of a well-polished stone, is the preferred spawning site. After a prolonged courtship, the cichlid fish deposit up to several hundred eggs in a compact circular plaque. Although the two sexes swap roles to some degree, hygienic care is chiefly the province of the female, while the male guards the perimeter of the pair’s territory against intruders. Because the Bolivian ram appears to be a much more reliable parent than its Venezuelan counterpart, pairs can usually be counted upon to do a good job of caring for their spawn.
The eggs hatch in 60 to 72 hours depending on the water temperature, and the fry are mobile four days later. The fry should be offered newly hatched brine shrimp for their initial meal. Both parents care for the free-swimming young.
Although somewhat slow-growing, the fry are easily reared as long as due attention is paid to the water quality in their aquarium. Fry are even more sensitive to nitrogen cycle mismanagement than adults. Frequent partial water changes are thus essential if they are to prosper. Unless the breeding aquarium is very large (more than 20 gallons), it will prove necessary to distribute fry from a given spawning among several aquariums to maximize the growth rate and encourage optimal fin development. The young are sexually mature — though not fully grown — between eight and 10 months after hatching.