Spawning Cichlids

Spawning Cichlids

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Note: This article has been written before my 1999 (October) trip to Lake Malawi. But all the main points and especially the part related to tank spawning are the same.

Foreword: Spawning fishes is, or should be, the final goal of any real "cichlidiot" and also of any serious aquarium keeper. As a matter of fact among the reasons that lead an aquarist to "chose" cichlids as the fishes to keep in his tank(s) is the opportunity to have a close look to the countless numbers of courting, spawning, guarding of fry and the very interesting behaviour of those unbelievable fishes. I feel a "clever" aquarium keeper must end up in cichlids and never "leave" them. Despite the fact that cichlids are somewhat  demanding fishes (just think about water changes...) they're extremely "addictive". Years ago I decided to house my first group of africans in a 125 lt tank. Guess what? Right now I'm running as much as 1300 lt of "Rift Valley water" splitted in 6 tanks (shared only with a few : Plecos & Synos).

For the sake of thuth nothing of what I'm going to speak to you about in this article, should be taken as "scientific" in the true meaning of the term but should be received as what a "curious" cichlids keeper has witnessed, learned, guessed and reported in more than ten years of cichlid keeping, most part of it focused on Malawians. This article is divided in two parts, spawning in the wild and spawning in tanks.


Part I: Spawning in the Wild

I have a few "on the field" informations to share with you since I'm a hobbyst. I refer to my 1997 trip to Lake Malawi. We spent about two weeks on the Lake visiting Nkata Bay (Malawi itself) and its surrounding, where we only snorkelled (remarkable time we spent at Chikale Beach) and the coast (Tanzania) from Mbamba Bay to Liuli, were we've had both snorkelling AND scuba diving. (See my article Diving Lake Malawi).

During these eleven days, the first experience ever of actual diving in the Lake is probably NOT the best starting point to set up absolute "truths" on cichlid's spawning habits. You should also consider the fact that there are scientists who have devoted their lives is studying cichlids. That's why I will never, neither in this section nor in the following (aquarium habits) state anything like "The X cichlids, when courting his female, will act so and so" but, humbly, I'll report to you that: "I saw the X cichlid acting like this while ... " but that may well NOT be the "rule"! There are very few cases that I've witnessed. Lake Malawi cichlids have to be divided, as usual, in two groups: M'buna and Utaka that - in the wild - continuously interact among each other.

M'buna: These are more "friendly" and it's not very difficult to see their displaying behaviour, i.e.: to see a male, in full colours, shaking with all fins opened in order to attract a female (I wish him luck...) or "servicing" a flat stone. Looking among rocks and crevices it is not that difficult to find "carrying" females used to hurry back in the dark once they realize you're looking at them. Also "fights" among males were easy to be observed wherever we dived.

Utaka: It is not difficult to meet schools of females (most likely of mixed species) and males guarding their nests in the sand. But I've never seen the "real" spawing in progress.

Generally speaking I noticed that the deeper you go the less shy the fishes are (possibly because of the the dimmer light). As a matter of fact, at Higga Reef, I've seen many Protomelas sp. "Taiwan Reef" males, each one attending his cave, with the most incredible colours I've ever seen (from 25 mt. and deeper). And my underwater camera refused to work! Bad luck ! In another instance (this time at a depth of about 20 m) a female Tyrannochromis "swollowed" an unbelievable amout of fry from the bottom upon our arrival. As soon as she noticed us shaking and swimming towards her I suppose she told her fry: "DANGER!". Suddenly the group stopped looking for food, divided itselt in two parts facing the mother, she opened the mouth and quicky one half entered her mouth, followed by the second one. Then she had a quick look (to be sure none that no fry remained "outside"?) and disappeared in the dark with her whole cargo. All that story has taken me more time to tell than it tool the fish to do it!

Final note on fry (both for M'buna and Utaka): After their final release in shallow water they stay there (the more the site is crammed with rocks the better it is) picking food from substrate. Hot shallow water and lot of light results in a real blast of algae growth.

That's all folks, I know is not that much but this is all the "first hand" info I can share with you ...


Part II: Captive Spawning 

First things first, here is the list of the Cichlids I've spawned, not to show you how "clever" I am but because I need it to introduce my notes starting from this point:

Cichlids from Rift Valley:


Lake Malawi:

Labidochromis caeruleus "Electric Yellow"
Aulonocara hansbaenschi (no fry survived!!!)
Pseudotropheus sp. "Msobo" - Wild
Labeotropheus fuelleborni "Katale"
Haplochromis (Astatotilapia) burtoni


Lake Tanganyika:

Ophtalmotilapia ventralis "Mpimbwe"
Neolamprologus multifasciatus
Neolamprologus brevis
Neolamprologus brichardi


Lake Victoria:

Haplochromis nyererei


African "riverine" cichlids:

Hemichromis lifalili


American Cichlids

Herotilapia multispinosa
"Cichlasoma" Meeki

"Carrying on the species" that's the unspoken rule every live being on earth follows according to the inscription of its own genome. This task is performed by means of on unbelievable number of courtings, spawning, guarding offsprings and specialized behaviour all around the world, in (and under) water no matter if if is fresh, brakish or salt and regardless how "wild" the environment is. There are animals (such as mammals) who have chosen, along the course of evolution to "produce" a limited number of offsprings while others (fishes are among the latters) selected a procedure relying on a "mass production" of fry managed by the "survival of fittest" rule. Among tham all our beloved cichlids which happen to be among the more "fussy" parents.To my knowledge "bony fishes" (almost every fish living on this planet except sharks and rays) can be - with really few exception - divided in three "macro-groups" (even if that division is not correct from the scientific point of view it serves my needs for this article very well):

  • Livebearers (no cichlids in this group, again as far as I know).
  • Egglayers (this group includes a lot of cichlids).
  • Mouthbrooders (spawing habits typical of Rift Valley cichlids but not limited to them, it includes some marine fishes, distant relatives of cichlids and more. Note that Arowanas, among others, are male mouthbrooders. (See my Arowana page). 

Let's, then, focus on the second and third group:

Cichlids of the Rift Valley, mostly Tanganyikans, can be found in both groups while up to now only one egglayer (namely Tilapia rendalli) is known among Malawians. I must note that I'm less "sure" about Victorians.

I use - even if not fully correct - the terms egglayer when referring to fishes (cichlids) that "lay" eggs on a substrate. They should be called "substrate spawner" and divided in further groups according to the substrate they use: leaves, sand, stones, bogwood and so on; but I do not feel the need to complicate things that much; and mouthbrooders referring to fishes that perform the "whole" act from egg fertilization to fry release "inside", generally speaking, the female's mouth (some american cichlids, among them Geophagines, are "partial", meaning that not all the process takes place in mouth). My experience with egglayer results from having spawned both Americans ("real" substrate spawners) and Tanganyikans (including the shelldwellers, endemic to this lake, which reproduce inside empty shells laying on sandy bottom). Since I referred to this group let's go into further details:


Neolamprologus brichardi: Once a pair has settled (see below how to "get" a pair and what risks are to be avoided) reproduction is almost "unavoidable" if given some easy to get minimal requirements. My shell dwellers spawned on or under stones, bogwood and even on the tank's glass (!). Guard of eggs and fry is "furious", with an amazing behaviour: whenever an "enemy" comes close enough, one member of the pair attacks him, thus while the enemy tries to escape this attack by turning to the left or right, immediately the second of the parents attacks the intruder who can't avoid being hit! Following generations remain with the parents, cooperating in the defense of the younger ones, while the "main" pair will only produce eggs and take care of intruders. In the long run this fish can "overcrowd" a tank to such a degree that there is really no room left for anyone else. Once the center of the colony with passing generations has become too large, a new pair is formed and settles down starting a new colony... I had to get rid of my pair because of the lack of space to host their fry!

Neolamprologus brevis/multifasciatus: Those both are egglayers that reproduce inside empty shells laying on the sandy bottom. (See "fast facts" sheet on the latter).

Labidochromis caeruleus "Electric Yellow" (LM), Ophtalmotilapia ventralis "Mpimbwe"(LT), Haplochromis nyererei (LV) (See "fast facts" sheet on H.nyererei and O.ventralis) and all the other mouthbrooders, regardless of the lake they came from, have reproduction habits which show a great degree of similarity. Among them, courting and spawning in the so called "circling position" (referring to position of members of the pair). Eggs are layed in a sand nest or on a flat rock with the notable ecception of the "real" Copadichromis chrysonotus which spawns in the Malawians manner in open water (I have a pair who layed eggs few times but, sad to say, with no "results"). Either way the eggs are fertilized by the male, picked up by the female (to my knowledge there are biparental mouthbrooders although only among Tanganyikans). The collected eggs are kept in the buccal cavity and "chewed" (to oxygenate them) till, after a period of up to four weeks, the result of this unbelievable effort is "spitted": a group of "scaled sized" fishes similar in all but size to their parents! Because of the well known aggression of most of these species, the fry at birth they show the female colour and pattern. After release - for a period of several days to a couple of weeks - the whole fry stays in a group, which (in case of "danger") is "swollowed" by their mother. I observed this behaviour only once in my tanks by a female H. nyererei (out of two). Only after they're too big to fit in their mother's mouth the males of the group begin to (slowly) get their "true" colour, pattern and temper! Sexual maturity is reached at about one year of age.

Finally let's review how to get a (possibly) spawning pair of cichlids, their spawning needs and note the most common mistakes that occur when trying to spawn cichlids. The most common mistake and, at the same time the simplest to avoid is :

Not meeting the minimal requisite to get a spawning.

Despite of all your best efforts a tank is, for lot of reasons, something "different" from the real environment our friends come from (this topic is of high importance when it comes to keeping and / or spawning F0 specimens). Nevertheless it is possible to spawn almost every cichlid. Some are more difficult to spawn than others or claimed to be so like Discus while with others it is almost "unavoidable". Anyway, the spawning requisites can be resumed like this:

  • Give'em enough room (imagine keeping a pair of Nimbochromis in a 80 lt tank) in a "correctly aquascaped" tank,
  • Give'em well cycled and managed water with temperature and water chemistry that fits to their own requests,
  • Feed them according to their needs.

Most common difficulties, and mistakes:

Odd as it may seem, in some cases having a "real" pair is not that easy! Luckily enough it's not that difficult with Malawians but many other cichlids have a less detectable sexual dimorfism and dichromatism - if any at all.. Generally speaking, the way to go is to choose a group of young specimens, grow them up in a "community" tank and once a pair is detected move it to a spawning tank. Needless to say, this is a time and space consuming process but with most americans it is almost the only way to go (the other way is "venting" them which means inspecting their pelvic area to see who's who). Other (less precise) ways to detect sexes are more pointed fins, bigger size, brighter colours (in males) but this allows much room for mistakes. It worths noting that, few years ago, I grew up 6 Geophagus brasiliensis to their full size (over 30 cm, or 1 foot each) only to see them turning into six males! The idea of putting together two specimens of definite opposite sexes will usually work with africans from the Rift Valley, while it is less "sure" with others. However, I tried it with T. Meeki and worked perfectly! To make things worst,  cichlids, by themselves, now very well what to do (and most of them have a really high genetic compatibility) which leads us to the worst "mistake" a serious cichlids keeper can make. Producie, possibly fertile, hibryds with low - if any - relationship with specimens living in the wild.

Finally a suggestion: whenever an (African) mouthbrooder is carrying you should resist the idea to "strip" her after two weeks or so of incubation (which means force her to spit the "cargo" once the fry is big enough to survive). This is a practice followed in order to get the maximum possible results (in number) but this will likely result in "weaker" males and females with the possible bad attitude of spitting / swollowing eggs. Must add that not all cichlid keepers agree on this point but that's what I prefer when things go on "naturally". If  you are really interested in high numbers of fry just "net" the female, move her to another tank (you can try two females, of different but "suitable" species, in the same tank, provided you can have a, constant, close look to them to be sure there is nothing going wrong with them ...) and leave her in peace till her time has come. She knows pretty well what to do, and needs no "helping hand" at all! I arrived to this decision through my personal experience (of actual stripping) in the beginning of my story of cichlid keeping. Any way, keep in mind that in a correctly set up tank a survival rate of 10-15% is almost normal. Provided you have enough room allow the female to recover her fitness for two - three weeks before bringing her back to the male. This point is crucial if this specific fish is kept as a pair and not a charem!

Risks involved in pairing specimens which are genetically "too close": This mostly happens with hard to find/spawn specimens. In such cases it is not very uncommon to breed fishes coming from the same pair (let's say brothers and sisters). This, while definitely eliminates the risk of hybridation,  brings up another important problem. Using and actually recycling the same genome (sons of sons of sons of that given pair, and so on ...) does not allow the needed "blood exchange". This may lead to problems like deformed specimens and/or specimens more and more different in size, colours and temper  from their wild "relatives". That opportunity has to be avoided as much as possible and the solution is just one: mixing the blood! Which does not necessarily mean that you have to rely on the use of wild caught specimens but simply trading/exchanging, every now and then, your fry with your friends or, seldomly, buy from different fish shops.

"Wrong" behaviours (I noticed) and behavioural changes (possibly related to keeping in captivity): I refer to a "bad" habit sometimes occuring among americans cichlids (I've had a personal bad experience with Herotilapia multispinosa and "Cichlasoma" meeki and with the only African "riverine" cichlid I've spawned till now, Hemichromis lifalili): this "ugly" habit is to either eat their own eggs or kill their offsprings! There are a lot of suggestions which may explain this strange (bad) habit, among them:

  • Fish derived from fry or eggs which, for commercial reason (getting the maximum results in numbers) were kept away from their parents and thus, since they were not subject to their natural "imprinting", consider their own eggs/fry as "food".
  • Young pair have to learn "what to do" (this has been suggested to me by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas during a personal conversation)

Possibly "insecure" (i.e.: overcrowded / undercrowded) or "unhealthy" (i.e.: bad water quality) tank. In this case the pair is afraid of a, possibly, weak and unhealty offspring. In this case a spawning is unlike to occur.

In a "restricted" environment like a tank,  the pair possibly considers their own offspring (not having the space to swim away) a possible danger for the next generation and so they try to make room for fry about to arrive... (I've been suggested this by Ron Coleman, see his own cichlids page)

Whatever the reason for this nightmare is, the only way I recommend to you if you want to grow up the fry is to move it, one or two days after they become "free swimming", to another (more!) tank and struggle with a frustrating slow growth rate (it took me well over a month to attain a 0,6 cm - ΒΌ of an inch - in t.l.) and lot of difficulties to feed and raise (along with a high mortality rate) them. It's worth adding  that to me, this is not a "natural" breeding system ... On the other hand African mouthbrooders can be less "fussy". Yes, the same may seldomly happen in too crowded tanks or when specimens are badly assorted (bully and shy fishes in the same tank). However, given proper conditions, (i.e.: enough "swimming" room and correct water quality) an Mbuna pair can choose a PVC pipe (!) as a spawning cave even if PVC pipes are not that common in Lake Malawi!

Finally, to make a long story short, I know those things are largely known but I hope that after having read this article at least some of you will feel the need to try to spawn "that" new, and never kept before, cichlid.