When I first started keeping ‘Apistos’ (South American Dwarf Cichlid of the
genus Apistogramma), I didn’t know anything about them. When I managed
to get a hold of some, I used to throw them in a tank with some water and wait
around for something to happen. Needless to say, nothing ever did. I went through
a lot of fish in those days. I wasn’t killing them in great numbers, but I wasn’t
producing any either. I had a pair of A. nijsseni that would spawn on
a regular basis, once every 10 days or so but I never saw any free-swimming
fry throughout the whole time I had them.
I decided that I needed to know a little bit more about these fish, so I started bugging people on the telephone, and reading everything I could about these fish and the water conditions they lived in. Eventually, I learned enough to spawn them. I also found that some of what I had learned was adequate, but not good enough.
There is a lot of material in aquarium literature discussing tank size and how it relates to the apistogramma. Most of the literature that I read stated that large tanks should be for large fish and small tanks for small fish. I remember one line that even stated the apistos are perfect for apartment dwelling hobbyists because you can keep them in small tanks like tens and fifteens. Well, this is true to a certain extent. Sure you can keep them in small tanks, and they will live and breed there. But what you won’t see, however, is apistos as they really are in nature defending territories and protecting areas against ‘sneaker’ males and ‘bully’ females.
German dwarf cichlid researcher Dr. Uwe Romer has found by studying apisto populations in the wild, that these little fish live in a fairly crowded environment. Perhaps as many as a thousand fish in an area of nine square meters, with leaf litter up to one meter thick on the bottom. You can’t duplicate these conditions in a small aquarium, but you can in a large one. I keep my fish in tanks from 30 to 150 gallons.
Large tanks provide many advantages. They are easier to maintain the proper pH and hardness. It is also easier to control the effects of ammonia and nitrites. Lastly, you will see the fish act in a way that more closely resembles their behavior in the wild. As an example, I have had as many as 135 A. juruensis living in a 20 gallon aquarium and around 700 A. cacatuoides in a 150 gallon tank!
Of course, to have this many fish in a tank it must have the correct environment. I achieve this in one of two ways. My aquariums have either lots of wood, rocks, and plants or wood, rocks, and leaf litter. Follow the usual precautions with the wood and rocks. Make sure they are clean (sterile is best). With the rocks, don’t use ant types that will alter the chemistry of the water (i.e. limestone). The plants I use are Pygmy Chain Swords and Indian Fern, but any plant that you do well with is fine. For spawning caves, I use the little 1 ½” to 2” plastic planting pots that are available in most nurseries. They are cheaper than other kinds, and you can get some that are green, which blend in with the environment. As often as not, though, the fish will spawn on a rock or log. Put the caves in though, the fish will still like them.
The most important component of an apisto tank is the water. There are three things about the water that have to be right: hardness, pH, and cleanliness. I am fortunate when it comes to the water that I get from my tap. It is snowmelt, right off the Cascade Mountain Range in Oregon. It is almost, but not quite good enough to apistos without any conditioning at all (100ppm hardness and a pH of 6.5). I still run it through an R.O. (Reverse Osmosis) filter. Ion exchange is OK, but I don’t like recharging them or having to get new resins when they’re used up. Besides, with my tap water, I have yet to wear out the membrane in my R.O. filter!
Although I know some very competent apisto keepers who use straight R.O. water for their fish, I mix mine with tap water to achieve a desired hardness of 10ppm. Next I treat the water with Sodium Bisulfate to bring the pH down to 4.5. I also use peat I my filters as well as leaves (either Oak or Beech) to bring the pH down. However, I have found that the peat and the leaves don’t get the pH as low as I like, so I supplement with Sodium Bisulfate. I like to end up with a pH of 5.0 to 5.5 for most of my fish. However, the fish in the A. pertensis and A. iniridae complex seem to like it lower, around 4.5 pH.
Water cleanliness means three things: filtration, water changes, and feeding. I prefer biological filters. The one I like the best is one of my own design. Most aquarium manufacturers sponge filter media just don’t have enough surface area to keep my apisto tanks clean, or they require too much maintenance if you have a lot of tanks.
The filters I use are made up of glass partitions that separate one part of the tank from the rest and essentially turning in into a trickle filter. For the medium, I use foam and red lava rock which “grows” in my driveway. Next I mix peat into the bottom half layer of rock. Water changes are done one every week to nine days with my conditioned R.O. water resulting in the tanks staying nice and clean.
The feeding part of the equation is simple. I feed only live baby brine shrimp twice a day, and only as much as they can eat in five minutes or so. I know some apisto keepers who practically count the number of shrimp they put in the tank, but it is actually very important not to over feed because uneaten live shrimp breaks down quickly and apistos are very susceptible to bacterial infections caused by dirty water.
Now that you have some idea as to the keeping of apistos, here are a few of
the questions I get asked- “Which ones?” and “How many?” Some species of apisto
are a bit more forgiving than others. Apistogramma cacatuoides, A.
steindachneri, A. macmasteri, and A. sp. Schwarzsaum are all
good fish for beginners. However, if given the right aquarium conditions, most
apistos will take nicely to the aquarium situation.
Apistogramma are great fish to keep with other fish. Many species of
gentle Characins and Tetras can be kept with apistos (Pencil fish ideal). While
territorial, most apistos don’t go to any extremes in defending their territory.
One thing should be kept in mind, however, is that apistos are divided into
complexes within the genus: Regani complex, Macmasteri complex,
Agassizii complex, etc. These complexes include fish which are closely
related. In the A. agassizii complex species include A. bitaeniata
and A. elizabethae. In the A. cacatuoides complex, there is A.
juruensis and A. luelingi. If you mix fish within the same complex
in a community tank, you could get some fireworks or some hybridization (to
be avoided at all costs).
In closing, apistos are great little fish to keep and with a little care and providing them with the proper conditions, you too can have a lot of fun. Give ‘em a try, you’ll be glad you did!