Breeding Dwarf Cichlids in Australia - Second Nature Aquariums

Breeding Dwarf Cichlids in Australia

One of the hardest things about keeping SA Dwarfs in Australia is being able finding them in the first place, and then once you have found them, finding a mature pair! Coming from Europe this issue was never a problem, because one of the big fish importers/breeders is located in Germany, Europe. Some of the issues that I have encountered with keeping Dwarfs in Australia are their availability – both in numbers and species. Dwarfs are rarely available because they don’t always travel well and the demand is not very high. If they are imported to Australia they are often in poor condition when they arrive, due to wrong handling and wrong water conditions in the holding tanks. They are also very susceptible to fungal and bacterial infections, as well as parasites and the well-known remedies are not very effective in Apistogramma.

The availability of quality imports and the price of those imports is also an issue. Most fish arriving from Singapore are typically lower quality, with less intense colours and fewer parental instincts. You usually get better quality from German bred imports or wild caught fish – but only few make it to Australia and the price of those fish is significant higher (up to $350 for pairs). And large numbers of species are known to the hobby, but not scientifically described, which are sold under altering trade names, which can be very difficult to identify exactly.

One of the more expensive ones – Apistogramma elizabethae


Now all the first issues aside, when you have managed to get your fish and they are happy in our setup, what happens next?

Breeding of Dwarf Cichlids can be accomplished in tanks as small as 30 litres, however in a tank this size there is much higher chance to loose one of the partners due to lack of room to get away, either the female if the male wants to breed and she isn’t ready – or the male if they spawn and he doesn’t have the room to get away from her eggs or fry.

A good compromise is a tank size of about 75 litres (2ft tank), it should provide lots of hiding places or shelter to make the fish feel secure, this is generally achieved by dense vegetation, or with some plants and mix of wood, rocks and caves. Sand or fine gravel substrate is ideal; preferably of darker colours as again it makes the fish feel less exposed and vulnerable.

Whilst Dwarfs can, and do breed in a community or maintenance setup, such a setup is not necessarily going to maximise the number of fry that will survive nor will every species spawn in these generic conditions. Some species have extreme requirements in terms of pH, hardness and conductivity and to produce a viable spawn these need to be matched.

Apistogramma, Dicrossus and Nannacara species are generally sexually dimorphic, in both colouration and size, however this is only for adults, juveniles can be quite indistinguishable, and even as adults sub-dominant males will show mostly female colouration in an effort to avoid the attention of a dominant male.

Other species show only subtle differences between the sexes, either way it can make finding a female a little difficult at times. Most species reach sexual maturity at the sub adult stage, while you are still undecided if that fish is a female or a sub dominant male it may just surprise you by spawning and answering the question for you.

 As the life span of most Dwarfs is fairly short (1-3 years), sexual maturity can start to take place from about 5 to 7 months of age, and has been reported as early as 4 months in aquarium raised Blue Rams. This is a good thing if you aren’t the sort of person who likes to wait 2 years for your fish to grow up!

 All South American dwarfs are egg layers and most are secretive spawner’s preferring to lay in caves or under rock and wood. Of notable difference are the Microgeophagus species which spawn in small pits in the gravel or on small flat surfaces, and Dicrossus species which spawn on largish plant leaves.

Breeding pair of Microgeophagus ramirezi (Blue Rams).


Mating patterns show that Dwarfs form either a father, mother family parental group where both parents care for spawn and fry (best kept in pairs), or a male, mother family parental group where the female cares for the eggs and fry and the male ‘guards the perimeter’ (harem breeders – 1 male several females). Some fish such Nannacara take this to extremes, where the female doesn’t care what the male does just as long as he stays away, from her and the fry.

Tank setups for breeding should try to emulate the water conditions for that particular species as closely as possible (do the research beforehand), sufficient suitable spawning sites should be provided, as a rule of thumb this should be one per fish plus one extra. For cave spawners these can be created out of terracotta pots or coconut shells, plastic tubing, etc.

I prefer to use small terracotta pots and enlarge the drainage hole and place them up side down in the tank, or I drill hole on the side – just above the rim. You can tell when some one has spawned, as some of the fine gravel or sand is dug out from inside the pot and placed on top or piled up outside, this is an indication that there are some eggs or fry inside.

It often seems that a pair will spawn and have the female eat the eggs fairly quickly. In most cases this is because inappropriate water conditions have been supplied and the eggs are not viable. For example Apistogramma elizabethae requires a pH of 4.0-4.8 before viable eggs are produced, similarly Microgeophagus ramirezi requires a carbonate hardness of less than 80ppm for the eggs to be fertilised, and water parameters near 80ppm will result in only partial fertilisation of the spawn. Water conductivity is now believed to be another important indicator or factor in successful breeding of Dwarfs. Most SA Dwarfs are not prolific spawners, it would be rare to get more than 100 eggs from a spawn and not all those would be raised successfully. More normal spawn appear to be in the range of 30 – 40 successfully raised fry.

Apistogramma macmasteri, female with fry


If your goal in breeding is to maximise the number of successfully raised fry, a careful choice of tank mates in a breeding setup is important. Suitable tank mates can include another pair of dwarfs of similar temperament if you have enough room and can landscape the tank to provide visual territory barriers, otherwise top dwelling schooling dither fish such as hatchet or pencil fish or sedate tetras are appropriate. Some tetras are too aggressive and active and have a taste for fry, cardinals being a notorious offender. A number of people recommend against keeping corries and other catfish in breeding setups as they can be prone to eat eggs and wrigglers.

If the fish are secure and happy in their environment there is no real need for dither fish, breeding tanks can be placed side by side so the fish next door can act as a distraction for aggressive males or a mirror taped to the side of the tank serves the same purpose.

The hatching periods vary from species to species, but usually fall in the 2-5 days for eggs and then 4-9 days as wrigglers, so free swimming fry can be seen somewhere between 6-11 days after spawning. Some females may move the wrigglers around as often as twice a day to different hiding places within the tank. Once free swimming most fry are large enough to take vinegar eelsmicroworms, newly hatched brine shrimps or daphnia. Most will eat some form of egg layer baby food as well as graze on the micro organisms available in an established planted tank.

Of interest in raising Dwarf fry is the affect of pH and temperature (or combination of both) on the final sex of the fish. An excellent study on this has been done by Dr. Uwe Römer, in “Natural History of South American Dwarf Cichlids, Vol 1”. His study revealed that environmental sex determination by temperature was relevant to 33 species of Apistogramma. Sex of the offspring is determined in a period in the first 30 to 40 days after spawning.

For example Apistogramma trifasciata fry (spawned at pH 5.5) will result in % males at different temperatures

- at 23ºC ~16.8%

- 26ºC ~49% and

- at 29ºC ~85.9%

Extreme soft water also seems to aid in fin development, with fish raised in very soft ware producing much more extended fins than those raised in harder water.

In general Dwarfs Chichlids have all the personality and character traits of the larger cichlids, it is just wrapped up in a smaller package. There are some absolutely stunning fish out there, or if you like odd but interesting fish there are plenty of those as well. I can sit and watch my tanks for hours, the way the fish move, how they interact with each other and how they interact with me, all add up to a fascinating group of fish that are so enjoyable and challenging to keep.


Please also read

South American Dwarf Cichlids

Keeping Dwarf Cichlids



28 October 2012 by Holger Loecker
Categories: How-To Guides | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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