Once the male has fertilized the eggs, and the female has picked
them up, she will incubate them in her buccal cavity for a period
of time, ranging from 21 to 32 days, depending upon the species
and temperature of the water. The mother will constantly “tumble”
the eggs, turning them over and over to provide them with sufficient
oxygen. Eggs that are removed prematurely and not artificially
tumbled quickly necrose and succumb to fungus rot, which will
then infect the other eggs. This method of incubation is considered
an advance in evolution by many researchers because it provides
an extended level of protection to the fish’s offspring. It has
been documented that the offspring of mouthbrooders are actually
larger than the fry of substrate-layers. But what is perhaps even
more interesting is that mothers will often take the fry back
up into their buccal cavity when a threat to their offspring is
Stripping The Fry
In my article on Stripping Mouthbrooders, I discussed how to strip a “holding” female of her fry before she would naturally release them with time. There are several consequences to such a practice. It has been argued, (without a clear consensus, I should add), that stripping the eggs is detrimental to the development of the offspring of that fry. It has been observed that if the young are stripped early, and the mother is not allowed to guard them for a few days following a natural release, that they will not know how to do the same for their young. Some believe that this motherly practice is not instinctive, but rather is imprinted at that young age.
Another consequence of stripping the young early is that they must be artificially tumbled until the fry are free swimming. If not, they will succumb to egg rot. (You can read about tumbling eggs in my article on Tumbling Eggs.) Also, by stripping early, you face a greater risk of mortality because the fry simply are more delicate and weak. Females often injure (and kill) the fry during the stripping process if they are pulled out too soon. If you do strip your females, it is important that you wait several weeks for the fry to at least hatch and gain some strength.
In the picture immediately above, I have photographed a brood of Haplochromis
sp. 44 “Red Tail.” These were removed after only 14 days. The
normal holding period is 28 days. I had two females that were
holding at the same time, separated by a week. Well, unfortunately
I couldn’t remember which had spawned first and so mixed the two
of them up. The result was that I ended up removing the fry from
the female that had been holding for only two weeks - a week too
early. Only 2 of the 22 survived! Unless you're going to tumble the larvae, 21 days is the absolute earliest that I would recommend removing fry.
Isolate The Fry
Once I have new fry, I put them in a breeder net in a 10 gallon tank. It is important not to put the breeder net in a tank with large cichlids (even cichlids over 4 wks old) if the fry are not yet free-swimming because they will get eaten, even through the net! This has happened to me twice, the second time the cichlids were only a few weeks old. You might also consider covering the bottom of the breeder basket with sand or fine gravel.
The reason why I put the fry in a breeder net is two-fold. First and foremost,
so that they don't get picked on by other fry a little bit bigger.
This is important because they are very susceptible. If pulled
out early, you’ll notice that they spend most of their time sitting
in one spot, even if they are officially “free-swimming.” For
example, look at the two pictures of the Haplochromis fry
above. Note how they are not swimming about but are resting on
the bottom. Because they are not able to defend themselves or
quickly get away from danger, they need to be separated from any
potential threats. They need that extra protection their mother
would have provided them, only we can't do as good of job.
The second reason for putting young fry in a breeder net is so that the space they are in is small and therefore they are more likely to see the food I feed them. This brings me to my next topic: what to feed your fry.
Feeding The Fry
I should first point out that you do not need to start feeding your fry until the yolk sac has disappeared, even if they are already free-swimming. The yolk sac contains all the food they need. Even still, you can begin feeding them right away so as to maximize their growth.
Some people start by feeding their fry the same flake food they feed the parents, crushed between their fingers. I do this, but have found that the younger fry don't always get excited about this as a first food. So, I feed them freshly hatched brine shrimp (bbs). This always primes their appetite. The smallest of fry always get excited about this. Freshly-hatched brine shrimp is an excellent food to use for the first couple of weeks to a month. There are other foods that are just as nutritious and readily accepted, which you'll find in my article Food For Fry. After 2 to 4 weeks, however, your fry will be ready to graduate to flake food.
"So how often should I feed my fry?" At least twice a day. They can go for several days (once proven by a necessary trip out of town), but thin considerably as a consequence. I feed my fry 3-4 times a day, but each time, I give them only what they can consume in 30 seconds. Fry get satiated much more quickly than do adult cichlids, plus they seem to have an increased gastrointestinal motility, such that instestinal blockages are less common. In fact, in my experience, "Bloat" has been altogether non-existent. But as we all know, it is a frequent problem among adults if precautions are not taken.
Frequent feeding will of course promote rapid growth. Also important for grow-out is maintaining good water quality. Small cichlids are not as hardy as larger ones. Make it a point to pamper them. Some people do 50% water changes on a daily basis. That seems excessive in my judgment. What is important, whatever your regimen, is to perform regular water changes, keeping a close eye on your nitrates.
Returning The Fry
“When can I join the fry with the adults?” That is a tough question
to answer. With most species you could probably put the fry with
the adults once they begin to exhibit their color. Small fry strategically
don’t have color (except in a few cases) so as to avoid detection
by predators. About the time they put on their color, they are
beginning to gain more confidence and show signs of aggression
and assertiveness. Now this is just a general rule that won’t
work with all species, such as the more aggressive species. And
then with the peacocks, you would have to wait almost a year if
you followed this guideline. In this picture to the right, you
can see a young Labidochromis caeruleus just beginning
to show its full color, with the black dorsal stripe becoming
apparent. This fish, in my opinion, is ready to join adults of
the same species. Now, if I had a tank with predators such as
Dimidiochromis compressiceps or Scianochromis fryerei,
this fry would be dispatched rather speedily. So, you just need
to use your best judgment. What I have shared is what I have learned
through trial and error (mostly error). If in doubt, go the conservative