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Pike Cichlids

Who, in their right mind, would keep pike cichlids? For one thing, what would you do with all the offspring?

By Wayne Leibel

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I can hear the groans already. Who, in their right mind, would keep pike cichlids? For those with big aquariums and a taste for goldfish gulpers, Crenicichla species are just the thing. But forget keeping pikes in any but the toughest community. And certainly no one would waste the time, space and fish food bill on spawning these fishes. For one thing, what would you do with all the offspring?

I must confess to dabbling with these fish sporadically in the past. I'd buy a bunch of inexpensive "who-zits" and raise them up, only to bring them to auction or my local retailer before they matured and spawned. So, I never really learned much about them, but always thought that pike cichlids would be my next serious step after I tired of geophagines.

That time is now at hand. With the appearance of Stawikowski and Werner's (1988) book in this country, American cichlid hobbyists got their first look at the splendor and diversity that is the genus Crenicichla, with well over 50 described species. The authors devote 53 of 281 pages to pike cichlid fish alone! I regret that I can't read German fluently, but the 50-plus photos speak for themselves — pike cichlids are the new wave of the Neotropical future.

The activities of exporters and importers bear this out. These past years have seen the influx of a large number of species, many from the Rio Tocantins/Rio Xingu, along with the magnificent loricariid catfishes from this area. To be sure, some of these species are extremely belligerent eating machines, but many are not. And those that are usually compensate for their lack of manners with sheer beauty. I believe pike cichlids have gotten a bad rap for many years and eventually I hope to convince you that members of the specious genus Crenicichla are interesting and beautiful additions to the Neotropical cichlid community.

Some Basic Biology
One glance and you learn nearly all of what you need to know about pike cichlid fish. These are elongate, torpedo-shaped fish admirably adapted for a life as piscivorous ambush predators. They have long snouts with large, teeth-studded, protrusible mouths that enable them to grab, then swallow whole, prey fish.

They take their common name from the ultimate ambush fish, the pike, (Esox species). However, they are not at all related. They are distributed throughout South America in all three water types, and are found both in swift-moving rivers and streams (known as lotic habitats), as well as shallow, quiet inlets and backwater pools, and even swamps (lentic habitats). Youngsters are frequently found in calm backwaters, mature adults in strong current, and brooding pairs in slow-flowing bays and side arms (Kullander 1986).

Many Crenicichla species are enormous, growing to total lengths of more than 18 inches. Lowe-McConnell (1969) reports taking an individual of Cr. saxatilis that was this long from a trap! There are also a number of dwarf species in the 4- to 6-inch range. One of them gets no larger than 2½ inches!

There are also a number of rheophilic species (preferring or living in flowing water) with reduced swimbladders, from the torrential rapids that "hop" rather than swim. Pike cichlids have successfully invaded most South American aquatic biotopes.

Analyses suggest that the smaller species depend on a diet of insects, insect larvae and shrimp, and in the case of the non-dwarf forms, fish (Knoppel 1970). Interestingly, a fair percentage of "plant" material, in some cases nearly 50 percent, was found among the meat in the stomachs of some pike cichlids!

Observation in the wild suggests that some of the larger species are solitary in habits, which might account for their belligerence in aquariums, but juveniles, and some of the dwarf species are downright sociable. Kullander (1990) recently described Cr. hemera from the Rio Madeira — choosing the specific epithet hemeros, a Greek adjective meaning "tame," with reference to the "docile behavior of the type series when collected."

From that same paper: "Curiously, most individuals observed could be approached very closely. They fled reluctantly and not far: " These observations have been corroborated for a number of species in the aquarium. Moreover, they are excellent and gentle parents often staying with their fry for many months (see below). So, the generalization that all pike cichlid fish are nasty and aggressive, just isn't so.

I can hear the groans already. Who, in their right mind, would keep pike cichlids? For those with big aquariums and a taste for goldfish gulpers, Crenicichla species are just the thing. But forget keeping pikes in any but the toughest community. And certainly no one would waste the time, space and food bill on spawning these fishes. For one thing, what would you do with all the offspring?

I must confess to dabbling with these fish sporadically in the past. I'd buy a bunch of inexpensive "who-zits" and raise them up, only to bring them to auction or my

References

Knoppel, H. A. 1970. Food of central Amazonian fishes. Contribution to the nutrient-ecology of Amazonian rain-forest streams. Amazoniana 2:257-352.

Kullander, S. O. 1981. A cichlid from Patagonia. Buntbarsche Bulletin, J Am Cichlid Assoc 85:13-23.

Kullander, S. O. 1986. Cichlid Fishes of the Amazon River Drainage of Peru. Monograph. Swedish Museum of Natural History.

Kullander, S. O. 1990. Crenicichla hemera (Teleostei: Cichlidae), a new cichlid species from the Rio Aripuana drainage Mato Grosso, Brazil. Ichthyol Explor Freshwaters 1(3):213-218.

Leibel, W. S. 1992. The Marbled Pike cichlid, Crenicichla marmorata Pellegrin 1904. Cichlid News Vol. 1, #2 (April):6-8.

Lowe-McConnell, R. H. 1969. The cichlid fishes of Guyana, South America, with notes on their ecology and breeding behaviour. Zool J Linnean Soc 48:255-302.

Stawikowski, R. and U. Werner. 1988. Die Buntbarsche der Neuen Welt: S<129>damerika. Reimar Hobbing Verlag. (In German: available from The Aquatic Book Shop; see classifieds in this magazine).

local retailer before they matured and spawned. So, I never really learned much about them, but always thought that pike cichlid fish would be my next serious step after I tired of geophagines.

That time is now at hand. With the appearance of Stawikowski and Werner's (1988) book in this country, American cichlid hobbyists got their first look at the splendor and diversity that is the genus Crenicichla, with well over 50 described species. The authors devote 53 of 281 pages to pike cichlids alone! I regret that I can't read German fluently, but the 50-plus photos speak for themselves — pike cichlid fish are the new wave of the Neotropical future.

The activities of exporters and importers bear this out. These past years have seen the influx of a large number of freshwater fish species, many from the Rio Tocantins/Rio Xingu, along with the magnificent loricariid catfishes from this area. To be sure, some of these species are extremely belligerent eating machines, but many are not. And those that are usually compensate for their lack of manners with sheer beauty. I believe pike cichlid fish have gotten a bad rap for many years and eventually I hope to convince you that members of the specious genus Crenicichla are interesting and beautiful additions to the Neotropical cichlid community.

Some Basic Biology
One glance and you learn nearly all of what you need to know about pike cichlid fish. These are elongate, torpedo-shaped fish admirably adapted for a life as piscivorous ambush predators. They have long snouts with large, teeth-studded, protrusible mouths that enable them to grab, then swallow whole, prey fish.

They take their common name from the ultimate ambush fish, the pike, (Esox species). However, they are not at all related. They are distributed throughout South America in all three water types, and are found both in swift-moving rivers and streams (known as lotic habitats), as well as shallow, quiet inlets and backwater pools, and even swamps (lentic habitats). Youngsters are frequently found in calm backwaters, mature adults in strong current, and brooding pairs in slow-flowing bays and side arms (Kullander 1986).

Many Crenicichla species are enormous and should only be cared for by responsible fishkeepers that will take good care of them for the rest of the fish's lives. These fish grow to total lengths of more than 18 inches. Lowe-McConnell (1969) reports taking an individual of Cr. saxatilis that was this long from a trap! There are also a number of dwarf species in the 4- to 6-inch range. One of them gets no larger than 2½ inches!

There are also a number of rheophilic species (preferring or living in flowing water) with reduced swimbladders, from the torrential rapids that "hop" rather than swim. Pike cichlid fish have successfully invaded most South American aquatic biotopes.

Analyses suggest that the smaller species depend on a diet of insects, insect larvae and shrimp, and in the case of the non-dwarf forms, fish (Knoppel 1970). Interestingly, a fair percentage of "plant" material, in some cases nearly 50 percent, was found among the meat in the stomachs of some pike cichlids!

Observation in the wild suggests that some of the larger species are solitary in habits, which might account for their belligerence in aquariums, but juveniles, and some of the dwarf species are downright sociable. Kullander (1990) recently described Cr. hemera from the Rio Madeira — choosing the specific epithet hemeros, a Greek adjective meaning "tame," with reference to the "docile behavior of the type series when collected."

From that same paper: "Curiously, most individuals observed could be approached very closely. They fled reluctantly and not far: " These observations have been corroborated for a number of species in the aquarium. Moreover, they are excellent and gentle parents often staying with their fry for many months (see below). So, the generalization that all pike cichlid fish are nasty, just isn't so.

Pike Cichlids in the Aquarium
Before introducing particular species of pike cichlid fish, I think it profitable to talk in general terms about the maintenance of this group of fishes in the aquarium. In the last couple of installments of this essay, I will fine-tune these recommendations to suit the particular group of pike cichlids in question.

For our purposes in this part of the series there are only two kinds of pike cichlid fish — dwarf pikes and "regular" pikes. Because the dwarf pikes number around six species (plus another 10 Teleocichla species), they are definitely in the minority. So, let's begin by talking "regular" pikes.

Maintenance
The first issue is housing — what size aquarium? The answer depends on the age of the specimens in question and, to some extent, the nature of the species. I find it best to start out with groups of five to eight juveniles and grow them up together. The wise aquarist will select individuals that are nearly identical in size, thus violating one of the cardinal rules of cichlid keeping.

You will remember that for most neotropical cichlid fish, males tend to grow faster than females and a good mix of sizes is recommended to guarantee pairs upon grow out. The result of mixed sizes of pikes? Usually harassment and death for the smaller fish.

In my experience with these fish to date, compatible pairs are often very close in size, with the male only slightly larger than his consort. Attempts to "pair" sexable adults of widely discrepant sizes usually spells disaster, even though in the wild, Lowe-McConnell (1969) reported that spawning males, at least for Cr. saxatilis and Cr. alta, were usually considerably larger (about 15 percent) than their consorts. This was, in fact, true for my compatible, spawning pair of Cr. cf. saxatilis, that were introduced as a "blind" date.

I prefer to work with 4- to 6-inch individuals and raise them up. My reasons have to do principally with the ease with which they can be switched from live to prepared foods (adults are more challenging) and their generally more sociable behavior at this age. Again, I stress that all individuals of a group should be approximately identical in size.

I might keep these fish in a 40- or 50-gallon aquarium (36- x 18-inch bottom), or even larger, and expect explosive growth rates that are characteristic of these eating machines. You may have to move them up! I favor a tangle of bog wood on a substrate-less aquarium, with some floating aquatic plants to cut back on the illumination.

Because these are heavy eaters, I recommend some kind of power filtration and regular, significant (25 to 50 percent) water changes. As to water chemistry, with certain exceptions (the dwarfs are such an exception), most any water will do as long as it is kept clean. Certain pike cichlid species seem susceptible to neuromast erosion ("head-hole") that, in part, is due to water conditions. It may also be due to undefined chemicals (or their absence) in the water.

It is the experience of several neotropical fanatics that activated carbon may actually be damaging to some cichlids. More to the point, we believe that the problems (head-hole is one of the associated problems) are related to the quality of the carbon used — cheaper carbons may leach metals and other undesirables into the water, and certain species seem particularly sensitive to them.

I also prefer to keep my pike cichlids warm, 78 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Several of the species, however, hail from decidedly subtropical regions (Kullander 1981).

The most important aspect of housing pike cichlid fish is PVC piping. The fish seem to feel most secure when there is some kind of hiding place, such as a "cave" structure they can escape into. PVC piping of 1 to 3 inches in diameter, cut into 6- to 8-inch lengths — or somewhat larger than the fish you are keeping — seems to do the trick, although perhaps not aesthetically. I include at least one tube per fish, but recommend many more.

This is the antidote to very belligerent fish! If they can get out of each others' sight, the aggression is minimized. The strategy works! When a local wholesaler recently received two dozen Cr. cametana from the Rio Tocantins, a particularly violent pike cichlid fish, they were beating on each other within minutes of dumping the shipment into a 50-gallon aquarium. They were quickly netted out and housed in individual plastic buckets until enough PVC scrap pipe could be rounded up.

That same 50-gallon aquarium, when filled with dozens of 2- x 6-inch pipe shards, became a rather peaceful "community" of pike cichlids. Of course, you rarely saw any of the fish (they came out to eat), and caught them by netting pieces of pipe, but the belligerence was controlled.

Why bother with these fish if you can't see them? Remember the end goal: to obtain a compatible breeding pair. Once a pair bond forms, adults are usually excellent and relatively peaceful consorts. And, we can always hope that the aggression will diminish in ensuing captive generations. Moreover, my example (Cr. cametana) is definitely the endpoint of the belligerence scale. Most juvenile pike cichlids are not nightmares. They're actually quite cute and often just as "tame" and responsive as Kullander (1990) noted for Cr. hemera.

Actually, some pike cichlid fish are reasonable cichlid community aquarium residents! Necessity is the mother of invention. It is also the mother of foolhardiness. Being perpetually pressed for space, I've tried some pretty amazing fish combinations involving pike cichlid fish lately, and most have worked. You see, the idea of tying up an entire large aquarium for a single species is not to my liking.

For instance, I've been raising up an octet of Cr. geayi that are fast approaching 6 inches. They've been housed for nearly four months in a 55-gallon aquarium with a sextet of Satanoperca pappaterra, a few single "Cichlasoma" ("C." alfari, rhytisma, spectabile) and assorted catfish. The aquarium contains lots of PVC pipe and, with the exception of some exuberant chasing before and after feeding time, and a few frayed fins, the mixed community is getting along famously. Did I mention the pair of 5-inch Crenicichla species "Tocantins Orange Pike" living peacefully with them? This will, no doubt, cease come spawning time if I am so blessed.

I likewise have a 40-gallon-long aquarium housing eight Cr. cf. strigata that are nearly 5 inches long, and they get along famously with each other and with the convict cichlid fish and 3-inch silver dollars they are housed with. Again, plenty of PVC pipe for everyone is the key.

In another 70-gallon aquarium, my trio of 10-inch Cr. cf. johanna seem to be tolerating each other, as well as the large pair of Heros severus (8 inches) housed with them, and the few assorted 3-inch expendable cichlids and a fleet of Corydoras catfish.

Finally, the pièce de résistance: In a 55-gallon aquarium housing a dozen Geophagus proximus reside 7-inch single specimens of Cr. cf. johanna, Cr. geayi and Cr. sedentaria. Frankly, I don't know why they are tolerating each other. And, I don't expect that uneasy truce to last — as soon as one gets bigger than the rest, I predict mayhem.

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