Being an account of a successful spawning of Mesonauta insignis
by JT Thomas
If you had to pick the most underrated commonly available new world cichild, if festivum didn't head the list it would certainly be up there near the top. These are beautiful fish, sort of arrowhead shaped, greenish brown shading to cream, with long pelvic fins and subtly speckled tail, dorsal, and anal fins. There's also a heavy dark brown stripe that starts just behind the eye and runs to the back point of the dorsal, and an eyespot at the base of the tail. And just to make things more interesting, they have a pattern of vertical stripes that vary according to mood from not visible through green to almost black. (A festivum in fight/flight mode could almost be mistaken for a convict, so bold the stripes get.) The particular batch I have managed to lay hands on also has a lovely golden throat.
As with many fish in the hobby, Festivums you are likely to see are not the fish they are named after. Mesonauta festivus is rarely imported. You are much more likely to find M. insignis (from whence the other common name: Flag cichlid), or M. acora. There are another half dozen species, described and undescribed, that are occasionally available. They are difficult to distinguish. The easiest way to do so is to find out the source of the wild fish. There are a number of sites that document the various species, their source localities, and their differences. One of them can be found at Mostly Cichlids - Is that a Festivum?
Now, if you go out on line to find festivum beeding tips, you'll be largely diasppointed. They're isomorphic, so you can't tell male from female at a glance. They're monogamous pair bonders, and they're nearly as picky about their mates as people. Badman notes that they are substrate spawners, that they are difficult to sex, and that they are hard to pair, but pair for life. Mongabay rates them an 8 of 10 in breeding difficulty, " due to troubles with inducing the pair to spawn". Animal world does have a better description of breeding (Flag Cichlid, Mesonauta festivus, also called the Festivum Cichlid), but notes they are, "somewhat more difficult than other cichlids to breed in captivity".
I obtained a 55 gallon tank, which sat in my garage until my LFS could lay hands on some good festivums for me. Finally, they arrived. Since this is an isomorphic species (the sexes look the same), and hard to pair, I got a half dozen. I purchased six juveniles, selecting for good finnage, golden color on the throat, and to the frustration of the person catching them, speed and ability to evade the net (and boy did that come back to bite me.) I initially housed them in a 55 gallon south American community with tetras, cories, and plecos. Later I moved them and some cories I was planning on breeding to a 20 long, and then parceled out the cories to breeding tanks, and moved the festivums to a 33 tall. I mention this to point out that, while moving fish around is generally not a good idea, these guys were shuffled about quite a bit before finally going into the breeding tank.
Setting Up the Breeding Tank
Finally, I set up the 55 for them to grow out, pair, and breed. The tank has a 1" sand substrate with Malaysian trumpet snails stirring it. There's a large hunk of java moss covered driftwood in the middle of the tank. Filtration is with a pair of hydrosponge 1 filters, matured for months in other active community tanks, stacked three sponges high, and placed one in the back corner of each end. This causes very little water movement – just a slow cycling. The tank is kept at 80ºF with a 150 watt submersible heater in the center of the tank. For breeding substrate and possible hiding spots, I placed five 6" clay flowerpots on the sand on either side of the driftwood (I eventually reduced this to three to one side only). I planted with a number of species: Hygrophilia corymbosa "angustifolia", H. difformis, Ludewegia repens, and Hydrocotyl brasiliensis (Pennywort). I also let a good amount of pennywort float on the surface. This is all lit with a 2 bulb shop light from a big box store, putting out 80 watts of 6500K light 12 hours a day. Into this I introduced my six young festivums.
I gave them a varied daily feeding. Three different types of flake, 2 different pellets, and possibly freeze dried bloodworms 3 or 4 times weekly (Ususally 2 of the above at a particular feeding). Frozen bloodworms or mysis shrimp or spirulina enriched brine once or twice weekly, and live brine and blackworms at least once weekly (and on Sunday they fasted).
A Short Lived Success
Initially, all six tended to school together, but over time two claimed the territory over the three flowerpots. I thought I might be seeing a pair form, and found that I was right about three days later, when I found the female hovering over a 2" round patch of quite small, whitish eggs (I guess about 200, but there were more than I cared to count.) The four remaining fish had been relegated to the far side of the driftwood, and any that came out of the Hygro thicket on that side the male rapidly chased back into hiding. "Away we go!" I thought.
Such disappointment when the next day the eggs were nowhere to be found. However, it is not uncommon for new cichlid pairs to eat their first (or first several) spawns. I had a pair, and I was past what the limited information out there indicates is the hard part.
At this point, I removed 3 of the 4 unpaired fish (2 to the 33 high, 1 to the 55 gallon community where they were initially housed). The fourth and smallest, the one that prompted the fish store employee as near to vile language as I have ever seen her, remained persistently elusive. With the amount of sand that had gotten kicked up, I gave it up for a bad job, lest I accidentally fish out one of my breeding pair. I also pulled out two of the five flowerpots at this point.
And Away We Go
It didn't take the pair long to get back to business again. They picked the pot nearest the driftwood for their spawn this time and drove the third wheel into hiding in the thickets. On the second day, the color of the eggs darkened. As small as they are, I wasn't 100% sure, but I think I was seeing eyes.
During this time, I continued to feed the adults lightly once a day (on the same schedule). The female tended to hover over the eggs, fanning them with her pectoral fins.
I was unable to locate anywhere how long it would be until hatching, so I was a bit surprised on the third day to find the eggs gone from the flowerpot. A bit frustrated too, since I thought I was seeing another false start. Then I noticed that a patch of driftwood was grey and pulsing, and there they were, looking for all the world like eggs with tails, in very nearly the same configuration as they had been on the flowerpot. Over the next six days, the parents moved the fry several times between that spot and one near the top of the wood, where they cleared a patch of moss about 3" around. every day the yolk sacs shrank incrementally, and at about 4 days the fry started to look less like eggs with tails, and more like baby fish with goiters. Finally, after 6 days, the fry ran through their egg sacs and went for their first swim.
How Fast is Too Fast?
On the day after the hatch, I noticed that the third wheel, the speedy, wily, elusive one, was nowhere to be found. So I went in there with a net and chased it out from behind a filter. The pair had been at it, and it was missing some scales. Apparently the parents get really short tempered with interlopers in their territory when they have fry. They quickly chased it into the opposite corner of the tank. Fortunately or not, the third had been beaten up enough that I was able to net it out and put it in my 55 gallon South American community, when it recovered (if remained a bit timid).
Feeding the Swimmers
On the second day after the hatch I was able to lay hands on a culture of micro worms and get it running (my infusoria experiment was less successful). The feeding schedule will be as follows or the next several days: Microworms in the morning. Frozen rotifers in the mid afternoon. Cyclop-eze powder (and food for the parents every day) at night. After about a week I started mixing 2 cubes of frozen baby brine with one cube of rotifers and feeding about half of that to the festivum fry. (The other half was parceled out among cory, rainbowfish, Neolamprologus, and Rineloricaria fry.)
After about 3 weeks on this regimen, I added frozen daphnia to the mix. About half the fry had stopped looking like fry, per se – eyes with tails – and had become identifiable as some sort of generalized cichlid. They had grown to the size of week old swordtail fry – perhaps 5 or 8 mm. At this point, I started adding small sided flake food to the mix for one or both feedings.
At about 30 days out, when the first of the fry became recognizable as festivums, I noticed that the larger fry were partaking of the feed I put in for the adults. There really is nothing more amusing in the aquarium hobby than watching a 3/4 fish tussling with a 2 1/2" blackworm. The larger ones also seem to go for the frozen spirulina brine. At 60 days out, I am no longer separately feeding the fry and adults.
It seems to be a pretty universal thing among cichlidophiles to rhapsodize on the family life of their fish. I can see where they are coming from.
The fry spend periods of lights out down near the substrate. While the lights are on, they swim in a globe around the parents. One thing that freaked me out was during the midday lighting hiatus, when the tank isn't really light, but isn't actually dark either, some of the fry headed for the bottom, and some stayed in their swarm. The parents swam to the bottom and picked the fry up in their mouths and spat them back into the school. On the one hand, I was initially worried that they were eating the fry, and I would have to move the parents (I have been advised not to do that, since apparently the pair bond is strengthened by consistent surroundings). On the other, when they spat the fry back into the school, the sand that they had picked up with the fry dribbled down on the driftwood, which solved a question that had puzzled me since I noticed white specks seemingly growing there. I was wondering if maybe there was something in there of which I was unaware that was laying eggs. Nope. Just sand.
As the fry grew, they started to form distinct schools about the male and female, and as the male grew less tolerant of the female and the fry began to school less tightly around him, he took over territorial duties exclusively.
Growing Them Out
Over the course of the next 6 weeks, these tailed eggs, glass slivers, and cartoon cichlids have grown unevenly. 60 days out from the initial hatch, about three quarters of the fry are immediately identifiable as festivums. The largest are nearly 1 inch long.
I will be culling the runts and moving the largest and healthiest fry to a 40 long within the next few days.
A Word about Water
Throughout this entire process, I only paid a smidgen more attention to water quality than I do in the rest of my tanks. Water changes were done weekly with aged water, heated to 80 degrees, and treated with NovAqua+ and AmQuel+ at pond concentrations, a full dose of each. I am informed that AmQuel+ has the effect of crashing the pH of Fairfax county's relatively hard water, but I have not paid a great deal of attention to that, since I use the same treatments on all my tanks, and the pH, on the infrequent occasions I test it, tends to be right around 6.8.
For an underserved, difficult to breed species, this has turned out to be a remarkably easy experience. Insofar as I can determine, the keys to breeding were:
1. Allowing a group of Juveniles to grow out together.
2. Putting them through a large number of changes of scenery so as to assure that they were the only constant in their experience.
3. Setting them up in a species tank to pair off.
4. Lots of plants, little water movement, and some driftwood.
I believe I made a number of mistakes along the way, but they have turned out to be the right mistakes, and I can learn to live with that kind of error.
Festivums for the Rest of 'Ums. Copyright 2008 - 2009 JT Thomas
Unrestricted use of text and images by the Potomac Valley Aquarium Society (PVAS) granted. All other non-commercial use granted under Creative Commons License, so long as derivative works too are under that license.