Smiling and Mouthbrooding" Acaras
Acaras for those with small aquariums who want relatively peaceful fish.
I realize that there are those of you who read the acara installment of this series and said: "Gee, acaras sound interesting, but not for my aquarium." Either they seem too big, too belligerent or too destructive (i.e., aquatic plants stand no chance of remaining in the substrate). In other words, "typical cichlids" (or so their reputation would have you believe).
But there are acaras for those of you short on aquarium space or who prefer peaceful, planted community aquarium. This article deals with these relatively peaceful, modestly sized members of the acara clan — the "smiling" and "mouthbrooding" Acaras.
The "Smiling" Acaras
You may recall from another installment that I noted how Sven O. Kullander in his 1983 revision of the "port" cichlid group suggested that the genus Aequidens was a catchall for a rather mixed bag of cichlids and was in dire need of reorganization. Ultimately, he did just that, and the "true" acaras (Aequidens) and the "blue" acaras ("Aequidens") were two results of that reorganization and splitting.
The genus Laetacara (pronounced "late" acara), the "smiling" acaras, is another. (Please remember that these fish are all discussed under the nomen Aequidens in the pre-1990s hobby literature.) Kullander (1983) initially described the Aequidens dorsigera group, a cohesive assemblage of moderately dwarf acaras sharing, among other more important diagnostics, snout markings that were likened by the American aquarist James Langhammer (1971) to a smile. It was Langhammer who suggested the clever appellation of "smiling" acara, and Kullander (1986) commemorated that coining with the generic name Laetacara, whose Latin root is laetus, meaning "happy." If you want to know the anatomical details of the affinity of the four current (and many as yet undescribed) members of the genus, read Kullander (1986), but if you want to recognize them in the aquarium, remember the "smile."
The "smile" consists of a series of three dark stripes: one broad "interorbital" stripe passing over the "nose" of the fish and connecting the eyes; a second, thinner stripe extending from eye to eye across the upper lip (and separated from the first stripe by a broad, light-colored area); and a third stripe extending from below the eye to the "chin" area, just below the lower lip. It sounds complicated when you write about it, but a picture is, indeed, "worth a thousand words" in this case. So, check it out! See the smile? Memorize it, for it is the key to recognizing the members of the genus Laetacara in your dealer's aquarium.
Actually, you are probably already familiar with this group via Laetacara curviceps (Ahl 1924) or its lookalike (and usually mislabeled) L. dorsigera (Heckel 1840). These two species, like the "port" cichlid and the blue acara, are among the earliest cichlid fish imports from South America. Sterba (1968) suggests 1911 as the time of first importation into the German hobby. Given the fact that L. dorsigera and the "port" cichlid, C. portalegrense, both occur together as contaminants of shipments from the La Plata drainage (Argentina, Paraguay), my guess is that L. dorsigera has a similar historical place in the cichlid hobby.
Because they are dead-ringers for one another, most L. dorsigera are sold as L. curviceps (actually, just "curviceps"), the better known of the two species. We will discuss the differences below. The other known members of the genus include L. flavilabrus (Cope 1870) and L. thayeri (Steindachner 1875), but there are at least that many as yet undescribed Laetacara that appear sporadically in the hobby.
Growing to no more than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) total length (females are a bit smaller), Laetacara curviceps may be considered a true dwarf acara. The body is quite chunky, and in males the head profile may rise quite steeply. This "rounded head" is the origin of the species name curviceps (curvi: curved; ceps: head).
All members of the genus have a dark mid-lateral blotch, usually connected by a horizontal band extending from the blotch forward to the eye. There is a conspicuous light-colored band, parallel to and just above the black horizontal band, echoing the light area that separates the bands of the "smile." In the area behind the blotch, back to the tail, are four to five light vertical bars — the intensity of which varies with the behavioral mood of the fish. The body is typically blue in overall color cast and the unpaired fins are generously stippled with bright blue spots, often on a red-orange base color. There is also a red variety. In some populations of L. curviceps, the females may have one or more large ocellated spots on their dorsal fins, although this does not hold for all individuals. Thus, it is not a totally reliable method of sexing the fish. In short, L. curviceps is a very attractive cichlid!
Hailing as they do from the Amazon, this fish should be maintained in warm (76 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit [24 to 29 degrees Celsius]), clean water — they are not as accepting of a wide range of water conditions as their larger brethren are. In fact, many of the Laetacara species hail from soft, acid water, so if your water is liquid rock, consider mixing it with softened or distilled water (you can use reverse osmosis, cation/anion-columned water or bottled distilled drinking water, but never rainwater — acid rain!).
Because these are small fish and can be maintained in smaller aquariums (10 to 15 gallons [38 to 57 liters] and up), the volume of water needed is not really prohibitive. Of course, make the change gradually to avoid stressing the fish with sudden, large changes in water chemistry. Or try the old killifish trick of filtering your water through peat moss.
Get yourself some peat, either by the bale or as Jiffy Peat(TM) pellets. Make sure it is not treated with fungicide (it should say if it is on the package). Boil the peat, pour off the brown, evil-looking liquor, squeeze the rest of it out and then put a handful of the pre-boiled peat in a box filter (using the "foot" of a boiled nylon stocking to hold the peat will help keep it neat). The peat will slowly leach tannins into the water, giving it a brown tint and making most Amazonian cichlids happy and sexually alert. Peat will also chelate (remove) harmful materials from your water.
Sound like too much trouble? Try commercially prepared peat extracts (e.g., Tetra's Blackwater Tonic).
The water quality should be maintained as well. A sponge filter and regular (biweekly) partial water changes (20 to 35 percent) should keep the fish happy. Chemical exchangers, such as Poly Filter(TM) or Chemi-Pure(TM), can also be helpful in maintaining low levels of nitrogen wastes in your aquarium, but these will remove the peat tannins as well if you choose to go that route. In summary, L. curviceps (and all of the "smiling" and "mouthbrooding" acaras) should be cared for like dwarf cichlids of the genus Apistogramma, which we will meet in a later installment.
These fish are also quite shy and retiring and require a planted aquarium with plenty of hiding places (e.g., driftwood, PVC tubing, flowerpots, etc.). Plants should include both anchored and floating varieties, the latter to cut down on illumination — which should make these fish feel more at home.
Recommended plants? Well, I have a black thumb when it comes to aquatic plants, but Java fern (Microsorium pteropus) and Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana) are two good choices for the bottom — perhaps anchored to the driftwood — because they get along well at reduced light intensities. I would also use that old standby water sprite (Ceratopterus thalictoides) or even duckweed (Lemma sp.) or Salvinia (Salvinia sp.) floating at the surface. There are many other horticultural solutions, but these suit my black thumb (and the fish!) quite well, thank you.
Even with a variety of hiding places and a lush garden, these fish may still feel intimidated. Get them some happy dither fish in the form of peaceful schooling tetras. Tetras, at the bottom rung of the fish neuronal ladder (along with African cichlids), are beautiful but exceedingly unintelligent, and they will swim back and forth with nary a thought or a care. The somewhat more discriminating cichlids will see the dithers swimming about, a sign that it is safe to be in the open, and will come out of their hiding places.
As far as hiding places go, it is an apparent paradox, but the more hiding places the cichlids have, the more you will see of them! These suggestions apply equally to the somewhat more finicky dwarf members of the genus Apistogramma, which we will meet somewhat later.
When it comes to fish food, forget an exclusive diet of commercially prepared flakes! Wild-caught specimens may initially refuse to take dry or even frozen foods, but will switch over to these after a few weeks. In the meantime, the fish should be fed live foods, such as well-cleaned black worms (not Tubifex) or glassworms (Chaoborus larvae), some brine shrimp and frozen bloodworms or glassworms. Remember, these are small cichlids with relatively small appetites — don't inundate them with lots of food that will ultimately be uneaten and ruin the good water quality they need. Aquarium-raised fish will gulp most anything, including flakes, and do quite well on this less-than-gourmet diet.
As is true for most cichlids, spawning pairs are best acquired by purchasing a small group of young individuals and raising them together. In the case of L. curviceps, some adult fish are easier to sex than others, but because the price of both commercially bred and wild-caught fish is relatively low, I recommend getting more than two to ensure ending up with a pair.
Choose large individuals and small ones, because females often grow slower than their male counterparts and reach a smaller adult size. Picking only the biggest, most robust individuals often results in an all-male community (this is generally true for most neotropical cichlids). As the fish mature and come into condition, they will tell you whether they are a pair! Learn to observe your fish, and note their interactions — who chases who, who displays for who, who hangs out together. By doing this, you will have discovered the secret to successful fishkeeping and breeding.
Once you have a compatible pair, consider moving the others from the aquarium, or, if the aquarium is large enough and you choose to leave them in as target fish, make sure there are enough hiding places for them to escape to. Laetacara curviceps and all the Laetacara species that have been spawned in captivity are biparental substrate spawners. That is, both the male and female participate in the selection and cleaning of a suitable site on which to deposit the eggs — they seem to prefer smooth rocks, but the side of a flowerpot or a rock shard, even the bottom of the aquarium, will do.
Anywhere from 100 to 300 eggs will be laid and then guarded and fanned by both fish for about four days, until they hatch. The parents continue to guard the wrigglers as they move them from pit to pit. They also guard the fry after they become free-swimming some four days later.
The fry may need microworms to start with but grow fast enough to handle newly hatched brine shrimp (Artemia nauplii) in a few days. There is usually no problem rearing the fry beyond this stage, even on crumbled flake food, as long as the water quality is kept up. A well-aged sponge filter (placed in the main aquarium for a few weeks first) and frequent partial water changes will keep them healthy.
Spawnings are often discovered only when these normally peaceful dwarves darken in color and begin acting like fish three times their size. Brooding pairs can become quite belligerent and make life miserable for other members of their species, especially in aquariums too small for escape. While they are good parents, they are sometimes overwhelmed by larger tankmates or even the well-intentioned ministrations of the keeper intent on witnessing their first cichlid spawning. Often, under these circumstances, the pair will eat their eggs. Sometimes they get better with ensuing spawns, so don't give up.
The eggs can easily fall victim to nocturnal catfish, who relish caviar when available. If you see your fish guarding a spawn and there are catfish in the aquarium, give them a break by leaving the light on continually so the parents can at least see to fend off the threat. The light will also inhibit the catfish's feeding activities somewhat. You might consider gently siphoning out the free-swimming fry into a smaller aquarium — those stupid tetras also enjoy live food and it rapidly becomes a major chore for the parents to keep the entire brood rounded up.
Having said all this, and probably having scared many of you away, I should tell you that I have also kept these fish in unplanted aquariums with little in the way of water quality maintenance, except for good filtration and an occasional water change, and provided a diet of only dry food — and also had success. I just think the fish would be happier with the additional attention to their needs.
While commercially bred L. curviceps might well survive and even breed under these minimal conditions, if you want some of the more exotic wild-caught species (which we will discuss below) to prosper and spawn, the added attention to aquarium conditions is worth the effort. They're not quite as demanding as apistos, but they're certainly not as industrial strength as ports or "true" acaras.
The Other "Smiling" Acaras
As has already been mentioned, there are several as yet undescribed "curviceps" lookalikes that appear in the hobby from time to time. Many of them may simply be geographic color morphs of L. curviceps. One of them is not: Laetacara sp. "Buckelkopf" from the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. It could best be described as a mint-green "curviceps" with a brilliant gold iridescent lateral band — the males, that is. Females develop bright-red spangling on their flanks.
The first time I ever saw this fish — posing in mid-water under a skylight in Rosario LaCorte's fish house — my jaw nearly hit the floor. He had collected these on one of his many trips to that area, but the Buckelkopf acara is now imported irregularly into the hobby.
Another of these lookalikes hails from Venezuela and is called the "orangeflossen" (orange-finned) acara. I direct you to excellent pictures of these fish and other Laetacara sp. aff. curviceps in Linke and Staeck (1984) or Koslowski (1985), and in Loiselle (1983).
A Word About Naming Fish
When ichthyologists determine that a fish is new to science, they must describe it thoroughly, indicating how it differs from other known species (diagnosis) and give it a formal, Latin binomial. The complete binomial name includes a genus, the first name, and a second, species name.
Usually, the names chosen refer to peculiarities of the fish in question. Sometimes they honor the type locality where the fish was collected or the collector, or even a friend or patron of the scientist doing the naming. The name of the ichthyologist who has described and named the fish usually follows the Latin binomial in formal usage, accompanied by the year the paper describing the fish was published. For example, Nannacara anomala Regan 1905 tells us that the species anomala in the genus Nannacara was originally described by Charles Tate Regan in 1905.
Sometimes mistakes are made in "placing" fish in particular genera and the fish may later be moved by subsequent ichthyologists when they review species assemblages. Or new species are sometimes determined to be identical with previously described species and they must be synonymized under the older name, which has precedence.
In any case, names that have changed are designated by putting the original describer's name in parentheses. For example, Laetacara dorsigera (Heckel 1840) was first described by Heckel in 1840 and was placed in the genus Acara, but it was subsequently moved to a new genus upon additional analysis. Actually, this species has been moved several times! From Acara to Aequidens and finally to Laetacara, the genus set up for it by Sven Kullander. Therefore, when discussing the genus alone, it is Laetacara Kullander 1986. The rules are rather simple once you know how they work.
Laetacara dorsigera is another variation on the theme of "curviceps" but has been recognized as a distinct, valid species since 1840 when it was described by Heckel. In virtually all respects, except for coloration, L. dorsigera resembles L. curviceps and has been — and still is — confused with it by most importers and retailers.
For starters, L. dorsigera hails from a completely different part of South America — the Paraguay/Parana system of the La Plata drainage. When in spawning/brood-tending coloration, L. dorsigera has a bright maroon to fire engine-red breast and face. Their care and maintenance is exactly that of L. curviceps with the lone caveat that lower water temperatures are possible given the geographic origin of this fish. It is my guess that like the "port" acara from this same area, L. dorsigera, not L. curviceps, was the first "smiling" acara to be kept in the early 1900s, given its relative tolerance to cool water. Laetacara dorsigera is regularly imported from Argentina and Paraguay and is therefore available. Ask your dealer where the "curviceps" in the aquariums are from.
The two remaining members of the "smiling" acara group are relatively uncommon and often confused with each other: L. flavilabrus and L. thayeri. It is the latter fish that was first dubbed the "smiling" acara by Jim Langhammer (1971). Laetacara flavilabrus hails from Peru, Ecuador and Brazil and looks like a larger but slightly different "curviceps" (4.5 inches [11 centimeters]).
This fish, and the one often confused with it, L. thayeri, can be readily and quickly distinguished from the curviceps-dorsigera group by one peculiarity of their markings — what I call the "hockey stick." In L. flavilabrus and L. thayeri the black midlateral stripe extends upward from the blotch at a nearly 90-degree angle into the dorsal fin. Kullander (1986) refers to it as a "dorsal extension of the midlateral blotch," but "blade of the hockey stick" might be a more accurate expression. The bar comes and goes with the mood of the fish, so if you chase the fish with a net — there it is!
Laetacara flavilabrus is taken from forest streams and pools with clear, dark water (Kullander 1986), so soft, acid, tannin-rich water is probably important for their well-being and eventual spawning. They are infrequently available and have been spawned even less frequently. Nini Shultz of New Jersey has had success with them — but she can breed anything! They do require more than the usual care.
Laetacara thayeri has, historically, often been confused in the hobby with L. flavilabrus. They do both look alike, even sharing the diagnostic "hockey stick" marking described above. That's where the similarity stops. Whereas L. flavilabrus remains somewhat elongate, L. thayeri is rounded, even stocky (deeper bodied) and grows to 6 inches (15 centimeters) or more in length. It is a giant "smiling" acara.
It tends to be rather purplish, whereas L. flavilabrus looks rather yellowish-brownish to my eye (flavi = yellow, labrus = lips). I personally prefer L. thayeri, but then I'm a big fellow myself.
Additionally confusing the issue is the fact that L. thayeri is also collected in Peru and Brazil. However, while they may live in the same rivers, they never occur together (Kullander 1986). Kullander (1986), on the basis of collection data, suggests that these are not blackwater species as is the case for L. flavilabrus. Laetacara thayeri has been successfully spawned in Germany. Both L. flavilabrus and L. thayeri are rare additions to the South American theme aquarium and are actively sought after and coveted by advanced hobbyists.
The "Mouthbrooding" Acaras
And now for something completely different — acaras that incubate their eggs in their mouths! Well, maybe not completely different. In 1983, Kullander suggested that these mouthbrooding fishes, the "Aequidens" syspilus group, formed a natural assemblage that should be promoted to generic status, and in 1986 he did just that! Kullander created the genus Bujurquina (pronounced boo-her — ki'na), from the native name for cichlids, bujurqui. The group currently includes 17 nominal species, another 13 of Peruvian provenance and 12 described by Kullander in his monograph (1986). Some of these are familiar aquarium fish: B. mariae (Eigenmann 1922), B. syspilus (Cope 1871), B. zamorensis (Regan 1905), B. vittatus (Heckel 1840) (syn. paraguayensis [Eigenmann and Kennedy 1903]). Most, however, are not and probably never will be owing to their restricted distributions in Peru. The new Bujurquina species described by Kullander (1986) include apoparuana, cordemadi, eurhinus, hophrys, huallagae, labiosa, megalospilus, moriorum, ortegai, peregrinabunda and tambopatae.
Keenleyside, M. H. A. and C. E. Prince. 1976. Spawning-site selection in relation to parental care of eggs in Aequidens paraguayensis (Pisces, Cichlidae). Can. J. Zoo. 54:2135-2139.
Koslowski, I. 1985. Die Buntbarsche der Neuen Welt; Zwergcichliden. Reimar Hobbing, Germany.
Kullander, S. O. 1983. A Revision of the South American Cichlid Genus Cichlasoma (Teleostei: Cichlidae). Monograph. Swedish Mus. Nat. Hist.
Kullander, S. O. 1986. Cichlid Fishes of the Amazon River Drainage of Peru. Monograph. Swedish Mus. Nat. Hist.
Langhammer, J. 1971. The gentle giants. American Cichlid Association. Buntbarsche Bull. 30:7-10.
Leibel, W. S. 1985. Movable platform spawning in an increasing number of neotropical cichlids. American Cichlid Association. Buntbarsche Bull. 107:2-10.
Leibel, W. S. 1992. Goin' South — Part 3: The "Port" Acaras. Aquar. Fish Mag. 4(6):40-48.
Leibel, W. S. 1992. Goin' South — Part 4: The "True" and "Blue" Acaras. Aquar. Fish Mag. 4(9):34-46.
Linke, H. and W. Staeck. 1984. Amerikanische Cichliden. I: Kleine Buntbarsche. Tetra Press. *
Loiselle, P. V. 1983. An assortment of acaras. Part 3: Primitive mouthbrooders, dwarves and oddballs. Fresh. Mar. Aquar. 6(10): 20 et seq.
Loiselle, P. V. 1990. An annotated key to the Peruvian Bujurquina. American Cichlid Association. Buntbarsche Bull. 140:4-8.
Stawikowski, R. and U. Werner. 1988. Die Buntbarsche der Neuen Welt: Sudamerika. Reimar Hobbing, Germany. **
Timms, A. M. and M. H. A. Keenleyside. 1975. The reproductive behavior of Aequidens paraguayensis (Pisces, Cichlidae). Z. Tierpsychologie 39:2-23.
* In German — this book and an English translation of it is available to members of the American Cichlid Association (Book Sales, 213 N. Joliet Rd., Plainfield, IL 60544).
** This book is available through The Aquatic Book Shop (P.O. Box 276484, Sacramento, CA 95827).
There are a number of morphological diagnostics that define this group (Kullander 1986), but for aquarists there are a series of distinctive markings that characterize the Bujurquina. First and foremost, the typical acara lateral band that runs horizontally from the eye back to the tail, instead, in the Bujurquina, extends obliquely back to the insertion of the soft dorsal fin or very close to it (top of the caudal peduncle).
Secondly, a dark curved nape band extends from the lateral band up, where it ends just behind the gill cover, and sometimes over the nape region just behind the eye. In some species (e.g., B. mariae) the bands meet and are continuous across the head. It is the combination of these two bands that scream "Bujurquina!" to the aquarist on expedition at the local retailer.
These fish are also usually rather elongate, medium-sized (4- to 6-inch [10- to 15-centimeter]) fish, often with a well-fringed caudal fin. AFI contributor Paul V. Loiselle (1990) has created a visual key to the Peruvian Bujurquina for those who want to sort beyond the genus for the 13 Peruvian species. But, as I've said before, you're likely to only encounter a very few of these (Loiselle suggests B. syspilus, B. moriorum and B. peregrinabunda) for reasons of their distribution and their capture by commercial collectors.
Most will enter this country labeled as B. mariae or B. syspilus anyway, two names that the hobby recognizes. As already noted for other species, the origins of the fish gives their identity away. Some of the Peruvian species get into Brazil (e.g., B. syspilus and B. peregrinabunda). Bujurquina mariae is known from the upper Rio Meta in Colombia and possibly the Rio Negro in Brazil, B. zamorensis from the Rio Zamora in Ecuador and B. vittata (synonymized with B. paraguayensis) from the Rio Parana/Paraguay (La Plata) system. Most likely there will be many more Bujurquina species once Kullander has a look at the cichlid fauna from these other regions. I recommend Stawikowski and Werner (1988) and Loiselle (1983) for photos of these freshwater fish.
Whether your Bujurquina is of Peruvian, Brazilian, Ecuadorian, Colombian or Paraguayan origin, its needs are basically the same. And these are as already described for the "smiling" acaras, with the additional need for a somewhat larger aquarium and tankmates. These fish do seem to prefer planted aquariums, with lots of refuge in the form of driftwood or rocks.
They are all (believed to be) primitive (delayed) mouthbrooders. Pairs typically clean a horizontal substrate, a round stone perhaps, lay their 100 to 200 eggs and then guard these for about 48 hours. At this point, the fry are chewed out of their eggshells and taken up by one or both parents for additional (throat) incubation. Several days later the parents will be seen guarding a swarm of free-swimming fry and will continue to do so, offering them oral shelter when they are threatened, for several weeks. It is amusing to watch the fry make a beeline towards their mother and dive into the safety of her mouth when you rap on the glass. There comes a time, six to eight weeks down the line, when mom and dad's lips will be sealed. Best to remove the youngsters before they're eaten in a pique of frustration. The fry are easy to raise on the same regimen detailed earlier for the other acara fry.
One peculiarity of their breeding behavior in the wild involves the choice of movable platforms — waterlogged leaves and so on — to initially hold their eggs. Often their courtship involves the "presentation" of intended leaves to consorts. The adaptive strategy of "leaf spawning" is obvious — it allows the parents to move the eggs when they are endangered (just one step in front of true mouthbreeding). This, of course, is nothing new as both "Aequidens" pulcher and "Aequidens" coeruleopunctatus (Leibel 1992b), as well as Cichlasoma portalegrense (Leibel 1992a) have been observed using movable spawning platforms. Reports of this behavior in the wild and in aquariums (Timms and Keenleyside 1975, Keenleyside and Prince 1976, Kullander 1986) are so far restricted to B. vittata and B. robusta, but I would expect all of the species to select leaves if so offered. Here's a chance for scientifically minded hobbyists to make a contribution. Try spawning your Bujurquina using waterlogged leaves (see Leibel 1985).
This behavior is unlike the immediate mouthbrooding of most rift lake cichlid fish, in which eggs are laid and scooped up immediately — often fertilized in the female's mouth — and no pair bond or extended relationship is formed. Immediate mouthbrooding is viewed as a more evolutionarily "advanced" reproductive behavior, hence the association of these terms ("advanced," "delayed") to describe the parameters of mouthbrooding.
Some neotropical cichlid fish, such as a few members of the genus Geophagus, practice advanced mouthbrooding. Members of the genus Bujurquina are among the easiest neotropical mouthbrooding cichlids to spawn in the aquarium and are well-recommended to aquarists willing to give them the special care they do demand. Unlike many mouthbrooding cichlids from Lake Malawi, these actually form pair bonds and relate with one another beyond the perfunctory act of spawning. But as I told you in the introduction to this series, neotropical cichlids are real cichlids, the essence of "cichlid."
In this installment we have met two groups of neotropical cichlids that are perfect for the smaller, community-type aquarium. Both the "smiling" acaras and the "mouthbrooding" acaras are generally peaceful, nondestructive alternatives to the more rowdy "true" and "blue" acaras. They have some special requirements, but these are more than made up for by the elegance of a spawning pair from either of these groups of fish. In the next installment of this series — our final look at acaras — we will consider the "oddball" and near-relative species that once clogged the old genus Aequidens.