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Laetacara Araguaiae: Breeding the “Purple Smiler”

By Don Kinyon

This hobbyist has always had a weakness for the Laetacara species, probably because Aequidens curviceps (now Laetacara curviceps) was the first South American cichlid that spawned in tanks that I kept in my parent’s living room as a teenager. In general, Laetacara are easy to keep and not difficult to persuade to spawn and raise their young.

Though not often available in retail stores, this fish can be found through other cichlid enthusiasts or over the internet. I found mine on a popular auction site, offered by a hobbyist that I’d dealt with before and from whom I’d always received good stock. This time was no different. The pair came in healthy and active, along with a spare younger fish that I’d thought was another female but turned out to be a subdominant male.

Laetacara araguaiae was described by Ottoni and Costa in 2009 and is a relatively new addition to scientific description, but in the hobby it has been around for years under the name of “Species Buckelkopf”. It’s one of the “smiling Acaras” because of the head markings that give one the impression that the fish has a permanent smile on its face. In fact, Laetacara comes from the Latin Leatus; meaning “happy”.

For most of the time in the aquarium, these fish are fairly attractive, but not eye-catching. A silver to goldish body with dark brown markings at the gill plate and in intermittent lines down the body, with highlights of aqua and teal. The fins are similar in color with more greenish highlights. There can be a gold spot in the upper center of the body as well. This all changes when the fish are courting or brood-rearing. The greens become brighter through the fins and intense on the body, the dark brown markings turn almost black, and the lower half of the fish’s body from the vent rearward, along with the caudal peduncle turns bright purple. This coloration change is evident in both the male and female, but most drastic in the female: she’s outstanding! This hobbyist is convinced that if the fish kept their breeding coloration full time, they’d be one of the most popular tropical ornamentals in the hobby. This species doesn’t get very large and could be considered a dwarf species: the males are under four inches at maturity and the females are smaller still.

Under normal circumstances, these fish are quite docile and get along with most any tankmates and are only territorial when breeding and rearing young. Even then, this species will only chase invaders away and rarely attacks once the suspected interloper retreats.

My pair, along with the extra male, were first housed in a 55 standard gallon tank, along with a small school of Hemigrammus to occupy the upper layers and possibly make the cichlids more comfortable. Two large sponge filters kept the water clean and oxygenated, fine sand covered the bottom, there were a few pieces of driftwood, Anubias attached to slate, and some round stones in the corners. I’m sure three of these cichlids don’t require this much room but it’s what was available at the time.

The water was at first straight from the tap: 7.2 pH and 160 ppm TDS. Temperature was a steady 78°F. The fish fed on live black worms, live white worms, mosquito larvae, daphnia, frozen blood worms, and a mix of flake and pellet prepared foods. They were active and seemed healthy, but no spawning behavior was evident.

With each weekly water change, I diluted the tap water with rain water, turning it softer and more acidic with each change. After a few weeks of this, the parameters changed to 6.0 pH and 42 ppm TDS. The pair became territorial, guarding a spot around a piece of slate that anchored one of the plants. The odd male spent most of his time on the far end of the tank in or around a dense clump of plants. The pair didn’t seem to care at all about the tetras and left them alone.

About a week after the pair staked out their territory, they deposited a large plaque of eggs on the slate at the base of one of the plants. They defended the nest and surrounding area with vigor for two days, then the eggs disappeared, and the coloration of the pair turned back to normal. This was a letdown, but the pair was young and it was most likely the first spawning, so I expected things to improve with the next try.

The next spawning came before expected; less than a week later; same spot. The parents guarded the nest like before, and like before, the eggs disappeared before they hatched. The next two spawns worked out almost the same way, but the fourth spawn lasted until the fry hatched out and were wriggling on the gravel before they turned up missing. I lost patience.

Soon, the pair spawned again, and as soon as the eggs were placed on the slate, I removed it and placed it in a 15 gallon aquarium with water from the breeding tank. The filtration in this tank was a matten type with two uplift tubes and the temp was kept the same as the breeding tank. An air stone was placed next to the slate with the eggs attached to keep fresh water flowing around the nest. In three days, the eggs hatched and in three more the fry were free swimming. I counted around thirty larvae and about the same free swimmers at first count.

Once the fry were free swimming for a week, the count went up. They were constantly moving and hard to get a good count on, but there were at least 60. Also, around this time the parents chose another piece of slate in the breeding tanks and put down another plaque of eggs. With such poor parenting on their part so far, I had no good expectations.

The fry in the rearing tank fed on newly-hatched brine shrimp and once they had been free swimming for two weeks, they started to resemble smaller-scale models of the adult fish but lacking all color. Of course, at this time, the pair had decided to become model parents and they were in the process of raising the next brood.

By the third week, the fry in the rearing tank were taking finely ground flake food along with newly hatched brine shrimp. There were at least 75 in the 15 gallon tank and they required large water changes three times a week. I was now using tap water to make the job easier, and the change in parameters had no ill effects on the young fish. At this time the water changes in the breeding tank were also switched to tap water. The fry in the rearing tank were growing fairly quickly and were close to three-eighths of an inch by now. The fry in the breeding tank were a little smaller, and there were about twenty-five of them.

The young fish in the rearing tank were given their three weekly 30 percent water changes while the fewer fish in the breeding tank stayed with a once-a-week schedule. Even so, the youngsters in the bigger tank grew more quickly: by week six it was clear that they were growing at a faster rate. All the youngsters had the same foods and now the same water conditions, but fewer fish in the larger tank was making a big difference.

At seven weeks these fish are around a half-inch long, very active and ravenous. They make short work of newly hatched brine shrimp, Repashy gel foods, flake, freeze-dried blood worms, most anything else they are offered. Some of them have already been given away, traded, or auctioned off, but between the two groups there are still many young fish. Future plans for at least some of the young fish include a group of them in a large planted tank, which should make for an attractive display.

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