Species of the genus Apistogramma have held an established position in the aquarium hobby for many years, due to the wide variety of species and their local variants, small size, coloration, and interesting social and reproductive behaviors. These characteristics have led to a kind of fad for this type of cichlid. Furthermore, every few months the market seems to come to life, and the exporters surprise us aquarists with completely new and as of yet scientifically undescribed Apistogramma species. I would like to present two popular species that I’ve had the pleasure of keeping: Apistogramma baenschi and A. bitaeniata.
In the wild
Dwarf cichlids inhabit forest streams and other small bodies of flowing water, including flood pools and even puddles. The water is dark (its color reminiscent of tea or cola) due to the high level of humic substances, which results in soft water with a relatively low pH and minimal mineral content. The bottom is usually covered with a deep layer of leaves, roots and submerged branches.
The distribution range of A. baenschi is only fragmentarily known, for it is a relatively new species first collected by Japanese aquarists as late as 2002. This dwarf cichlid inhabits (although not exclusively) the Huallaga drainage basin in northwestern Peru, and specifically rivers in the vicinity of Yurimagas: Rio Hanusi, Rio Paranapura and the Rio Huallaga itself. In its natural environment, the species lives in acidic water with a pH of 4.1 to 6.3. Apistogramma bitaeniata is most often found in the upper and middle reaches of the rivers Amazon, Ucayali and Napo; it also inhabits the Amazon lowlands in Brazil, in the Tefe region. There are many color varieties of the species: yellow, blue, red and many intermediate ones. The appropriate pH for A. bitaeniata is around 6 to 6.5.
Apistogramma baenschi is yellow, striped with black, with a red-margined caudal fin. The basic color of this dwarf cichlid’s body is an intense yellow; against this background are three to seven black stripes. The male has a heavy build, a massive mouth and prominent, fleshy lips, elongated front rays of the dorsal fin and a red-margined caudal fin. The females are smaller, less colorful, and they lack the elongated rays on the dorsal. At the base of the pectoral fin there is a dark spot; its color becomes especially intense when the female is caring for her young. This species is slightly smaller than the other — on average, males grow to 2 to 2.8 inches, and females from 1.4 to 1.6 inches.
The distinguishing features of A. bitaeniata are its shape and black stripe running the length of the body. Their dominant colors are a mixture of purple, magenta, yellow, black and blue. The head area, and especially the gills, shimmer with blue scales. Depending on the mood of the fish, another stripe can appear below the regular stripe along its sides (hence the name banded dwarf cichlid).
The mouth and lips of these fish are relatively small. The species is sexually dimorphic and dichromatic. Adult males have a lyrate caudal fin, while in females it is always rounded. Also in contrast with the females, the males have elongated rays at the front of the dorsal, which is also much higher and serrated. The males’ ventral fins are translucent, pale blue or yellow-green, and strongly elongated. In females these fins are short, usually rounded and largely black. The females are also smaller, on the average growing to about 2.4 inches. Yellow predominates in their coloring, especially in the belly area. The males will usually grow to 3.5 inches in the aquarium.
I kept both species in the same tank, with a pH of 6, general hardness below 4 and a water temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although neither of the species attains an impressive size, the tank should be at least 40 inches long (and 50 to 60 inches would be best). An Apistogramma tank’s height is of secondary importance, for the fish usually keep to the bottom and middle levels. Ultimately the length of the tank depends on the stocking levels, and especially the ratio of males to females. Generally both species should be kept in groups of at least seven (more than a dozen is ideal) individuals; in pairs they become excessively aggressive. To somewhat subdue the males’ fiery temperament, it is advisable to keep dither fish, which serve to spread the apistos’ aggression around. Other Apistogramma, as well as some catfish, are appropriate species.
Apistogramma baenschi especially likes to dig in search of food, so use a sand substrate. There should be many hiding places in the aquarium, where the females can find shelter and where spawning may occur. For these reasons, include pieces of petrified wood and driftwood, as well as coconut shells. Dwarf cichlids look their best against a background of lush greenery, so add some plants, such as Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana) and Amazon swords (Echinodorus spp.)
Apistogramma are sensitive to poor water quality, which can lead to skin and fin disease, most often ulcers and fungal infections. These species do not tolerate malachite green, so if necessary, use some other medication. Monitor water quality and do weekly water changes of 40 to 60 percent. Even slightly elevated levels of nitrogen compounds usually cause these fish to become listless, timid and faded.
The dwarf cichlids I kept were wild-caught (FO), and it was difficult at first to accustom them to captive foods. For this reason, I gave them frozen larvae of Culex, Chaoborus and Daphnia, as well as adult Artemia and finely ground shrimp. Food containing ballast substances (chitin or cellulose) should predominate in their diet. These ingredients are necessary for proper nutrition:they prevent constipation and promote better absorption of various nutrients. Among these foods are spinach (cellulose), Daphnia and shrimp (chitin).
Unfortunately, these species are not long-lived (like the majority of the Apistogramma). Their life spans — depending on the conditions in which they are kept — range from one to two years (there are always exceptions). Their reproductive ability develops relatively early for cichlids (at 4 to 5 months of age), but it also declines rapidly.
For those who are seriously considering breeding them, purchase specimens that were born in captivity, preferably the first or second generation after wild-caught parents (F1 or F2); this will make your job easier. The breeder should tell you (if not, ask) the physical and chemical parameters of the water in which they were bred. Only very young specimens should be bought, in groups of at least 10 and preferably from different breeders (to vary the genetic material).
For a successful breeding attempt, place a major emphasis on water quality and use reverse-osmosis water. Nitrogen compounds should be undetectable with aquarium tests, and to minimize the number of eggs that contract fungus, equip your apisto breeding setup with a UV sterilizer.
The factors that stimulate spawning are not only temperature and chemical parameters but also top-quality food. For this reason, precede the spawning attempt with heavy feeding, preferably with live foods. Another spawning cue is a large water change by which optimal water parameters are achieved (that is, soft and acidic). Spawning can take place even in a community aquarium, but it is best to move the fish to a breeding tank.
With A. baenschi, a successful spawning is most likely to occur when water parameters are as follows: pH of 5.5 to 6.5 (or 1 degree dKH, 3 degrees dGH) and a temperature of 77 to 79 degrees. The female plays a major part in caring for the offspring, which can number as high as 100. The eggs might be laid in a “cave” (e.g., an overturned flowerpot or a coconut shell); after about three days (depending on the temperature), the newly hatched larvae are moved by the mother to another location (i.e., another cave). The female with her young has her own territory, which she guards ferociously. The male sometimes takes part in caring for the fry; however, the mother defends her young and will often shoo the male away (usually for about two weeks).
Sometimes the female’s parental care (i.e., leading the fry around the tank) can be extended for up to four weeks. Keep one male to a few females so that his aggression can be spread out among a larger number of individuals, which also increases the likelihood of a successful spawning. The fry are big enough to take freshly hatched Artemia and Anguillula aceti (vinegar eel) larvae in the very first days (after they begin actively foraging); they later move on to progressively larger foods. After less than two weeks, the characteristic pattern of stripes can be seen on the young cichlids’ bodies; after about four months they reach sexual maturity.
For successful reproduction, A. bitaeniata needs its water to be soft and slightly acidic: gH less than 1, pH of 6 to 6.5 and a temperature of 75 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit (some breed these species in harder and more alkaline water.
Apistogramma bitaeniata kept in larger groups, in spacious aquaria and in absence of potential enemies in the form of other fish species, breed in harems (polygamously). The males will establish large territories, trying to mate with as many of females as possible. Dwarf cichlids also form monogamous pairs, most often when there are other fish in the tank that could threaten their offspring. They usually spawn in small hiding places (e.g., old, dry coconut shells devoid of fat).
About 100 eggs are laid, and after five or six days (depending on the temperature) the young become free-swimming. The female prevents the male from approaching the young. After the young have absorbed their yolk sacs, feed the fry with infusoria, newly hatched Artemia and Anguillula aceti.
Parental care is typical for dwarf cichlids: the male protects the territory (usually a 1-square-foot area), and the female cares for the young by leading them around in search of food. For both apisto species, keep their tanks clean for their young by making frequent, large water changes, removing uneaten food and vacuuming the substrate.
Due to their reproductive habits and social relationships, Apistogramma add to the interest and aesthetics of the aquariums they are kept in. These are fish for aquarists whose beginner days are behind them; apistos are sensitive to substandard water quality. AFI
Radek Bednarczuk has written numerous fishkeeping articles for magazines in the United States, Germany, England and other countries. One of his major interests are the cichlids living in South America.