by Francine Bethea
While putzing around in a mall, I found a small pet shop that catered mostly to dogs, cats and little rat things. The fish department consisted of a single row of tanks on either side. Needless to say, most of the tanks contained the usual bread and butter species we all know and love. Amongst them, I spied a tank labeled "Mixed Wild South American Dwarfs." Upon closer inspection, I realized that there were four different species of Apistogramma in that tank! I could not, however, determine which species they were. Nevertheless, I was taking some of these fish home, even if I didn’t have room for them.
The sorting of the individual fish would have been much easier if I had been able to net my choices myself. Unfortunately, I was forced to endure a clerk with a lackadaisical attitude who was not interested in the subtle differences between the fish. He obviously was not as excited as I was. I was not in a position to annoy this guy, because he still had the fish in his store, so I began to explain to him what I was looking at in each fish so that he could get the captures underway.
While the fish became acclimated to their new homes, I began research to find out just what fish I had purchased. First, I carried every reference book I had into the fishroom and began to compare the fish with the pictures in the book. Then, I started photographing the fish. I sent some really bad shots to a few people on the apisto mailing list. I also printed some of the shots and showed them to a few experienced fish folk. I learned several things from my experience. In addition to color photos, it would be a good idea to also have black and white photos that will show the black markings of a species. Don’t send bad photographs to anyone, anywhere. But most importantly, I learned that I now had in my possession gephyra, hippolytae, gibbeceps, and pertensis.
The Apistogramma gephyra are found in the Rio Negro of Amazonas in Brasil. The water these fish inhabit is very soft and extremely acidic. The water, however clear, is a tea color with a pH of 4 and 1° dH. The gephyra share waters with A. agassizii and exhibit almost identical coloration. These two fish are so similar in appearance that they are occasionally confused with one another, even though the gephyra is a much smaller fish. Also, the juveniles display two spots on the lateral line that may cause confusion with an A. elizabethae female. Furthermore, the breeding coloration of the female gephyra that I acquired very much resembled the agassizii on page 27 of American Cichlids I: Dwarf Cichlids - A Handbook for Their Identification, Care and Breeding (Linke/Staeck). Close scrutiny must be paid in regard to caudal shapes, stress patterns, horizontal and cheek stripes in order to clarify the species of Apistogramma in question.
To breed the gephyra, I chose a 10 gallon tank. The water was tap-filtered through peat. The water from my tap has a pH of 8.5 and is soft - unusable to breed apistos, so in a 30 gallon barrel, I used a Magnum 330 with sphagnum peat moss in a filter bag. Three days with this method of filtering brought the pH down to 5° and the hardness to <2° dH. The makeup of the tank consisted of a 25 watt heater set at 80°F and a hydro sponge for filtration. To create a selection of caves, I broke a 3" clay pot into several pieces. The curved lip pieces were pushed into the gravel at an angle so that the shard was a little higher in the front. The amount of gravel I used was minimal, so there would be a couple of bare areas. The bare spots provided a place for the live food to settle and be removed if left uneaten. I made one mound to plant a Vallisneria for a little extra security for the four gephyra. Finally, a large clump of Java Moss was dropped in.
As the fish began to grow out, their sexual dimorphism became more apparent. I lucked up with two pair! One male began to exhibit aggressive behavior and had pretty much herded one of the females to his side of the tank, which I might add was 3/4 of the tank, so the other pair was removed.
The breeding pair was heavily fed on tubifex worms, brine shrimp, daphnia and occasional bbs. I tried to use flake, but they would just look at it (I guess they were waiting for it to move). As you could imagine, I was greatly disappointed when nothing happened. I was doing 25 percent water changes weekly. I decided to change that to every other week, because it has been said that this method will sometimes trigger spawning, the idea being that a 50 percent water change imitates the beginning of the rainy season.
Initially, I thought my attempts at getting these fish to spawn were fruitless. However, one day I noticed one of the clay pots was partially sealed with gravel. At feeding time, the female would shimmy out of her cave to eat. Once she returned, the male would hover nearby. I used a flashlight to highlight the inside of the cave. Lo and behold, there were eggs attached to the ceiling. Every day, I checked the cave to make sure the eggs were still pink, thus fertile. The female tended to her clutch diligently and would attack the male when he came too close. One day, while spying in the cave, I noticed the eggs were gone. With the female outside the cave and the male munching on something, I came to the conclusion that the spawn had been eaten.
Two week later, the gephyra spawned again. I checked the cave and there were at least 30 or so pink eggs in the same place as before. This time, I removed the male, who unfortunately died a few days later. As the days dragged by, I made feeble attempts to fight the compulsion to constantly check the progress of the spawn. On the fourth day, while checking the cave, the eggs were gone! However, the female was a brilliant yellow and aggressively approaching my presence at the tank whereas her normal demeanor was quite timid. She had moved the wrigglers to another cave - you’d think my constant surveillance was annoying her or something. When I realized that this spawn would be successful, I relaxed and let her be, although I did keep an eye on her to make sure she was a good mother. Okay, I was less obtrusive by checking only four times an evening, instead of seven.
Three days later, the gephyra female was leading her fry around the tank. The first stop was the sponge filter. At this time, I began injecting a microworm and bbs cocktail into the swarm of fry. I continued feeding the female live foods. Actually, I doubled up on the amount of food I was giving her. In my mind, I figured that keeping the female full would deter her from filling up on my fry. All of the extra concern was unnecessary because, as it turned out, she was a very good parent indeed. Two weeks later, I removed the female and sold her with the other pair at the auction.
Apistogramma gephyra is an attractive species that does not require a large tank. Although the water requirements are somewhat crucial for reproduction, I imagine tank-raised fish would not require such stringent water requirements.
This article first appeared in PVAS’s Delta Tale, Vol 31, # 3-4