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Maintenance and Breeding of the Red Hump Eartheater, Geophagus steindachneri
by Lee Newman

The Red Hump Eartheater has an interesting nomenclatural history as evidenced by the varied names the species has been sold under within the hobby. Although confusion surrounding its name was resolved (Loiselle, 1974), Geophagus steindachneri can still be found for sale as Geophagus hondae and Geophagus pellegrini. While Geophagus hondae is a junior synonym of Geophagus steindachneri, Geophagus pellegrini is a distinct species (Leibel, 1993), though not commonly available in the hobby at this time.

A young male Geophagus steindachneri.
A young male Geophagus steindachneri.

Geophagus steindachneri comes from the Rio Magdalena, Rio Sinu, and Rio Cauca drainages in Colombia, and tributaries of the Maracaibo basin in Venezuela. The species is sexually dimorphic; males grow to 13.5 cm in standard length (SL), are adorned with a muchal hump, and are much more colorful than females, which grow to only ca. 10 cm SL.

Over a four-year period during which information was collected on Geophagus steindachneri, some interesting observations regarding maintenance and spawning have been made. The purposes of this article are (1) to provide the aquarist with a long-term plan for successful maintenance of the species; and (2) to describe the mechanics of spawning and fry rearing.

Geophagines in general - and red humps are no exception - suffer health problems in aquaria with poorly managed nitrogen cycles, a situation accentuated by the "eartheater" habit of constantly sifting the substrate in search of food, and in the process liberating waste materials from the substrate into the water column. The choice of a filtration system should therefore be a prime consideration in designing and maintaining an aquarium containing red humps. Although there are numerous systems that will work, any selected should incorporate the following: an easily (and frequently) cleaned, efficient mechanical prefilter; a biological filter protected from clogging; and regular partial water changes as chemical filtration-media tend to clog long before their capacities are fully exhausted. Red humps are more tolerant with respect to temperature, pH, and hardness and should thrive as long as extremes are avoided. They are easily fed, eagerly accepting all standard aquarium foods, particularly frozen bloodworms and chopped earthworms.

One of the more challenging aspects of keeping red humps relates to their reproductive mode. Geophagus steindachneri is a polygamous species in which males maintain harems of mouthbrooding females. As a result, males tend to be aggressive toward both conspecifics and other species, while females are usually indifferent except when buccally incubating or tending fry. Due to these behavioral attributes, maintenance of more than one aquarium for red humps greatly simplifies matters. One tank is used to house the male chosen for breeding, kept either alone or in a community setting with species capable of withstanding his aggressive disposition. In my experience, a male maintained in a lightly-aquascaped 180 gal tank bullied adult groups of G. surinamensis and Satanoperca daemon. On the other hand, red humps are cowed by most cichlasomines; therefore, a delicate behavioral balance is the goal.

A female Geophagus steindachneri with fry..
A female Geophagus steindachneri with fry.

A second aquarium placed so that fish in both tanks can see each other - is used to maintain and ripen females. It is preferable to have at least two or three females in order to dilute the persistent attentions of the male during spawning interactions. Again this can be accomplished either by keeping the females alone or in a community tank containing other non-aggressive species. Mixing females in a 30-gal tank with adult Microgeophagus ramirezi and juvenile Satanoperca leucosticta is a combination that has worked well for me, but there are numerous options. Many factors, including size and shape of the aquarium, aquascaping, and other species present, play significant roles in developing successful housing arrangements.

As stated earlier, inducing red humps to spawn presents few challenges, assuming both sexes are present. Difficulties may arise, however, in (1) determining when a female is ready to spawn and (2) deciding on a management plan for a recently spawned female. If the maintenance strategy described above is adopted, the first problem may be eliminated. Assuming adequate visibility, the male may court the females in the adjacent tank, which may help to prepare them for spawning. When a female is ready to spawn, as evidenced by her interest in and proximity to the male, he is then transferred to the aquarium containing the females. The transfer will probably not affect the male for long; he often will begin courting within minutes of his introduction to the females' tank. At this point careful observation is required. If one or more females is ready to spawn, courtship proceeds accordingly (as described below). However, if no females are responsive to the male's overtures, he will chase and nip them to the point of inflicting serious damage and possibly death. Assuming courtship is observed, non-receptive females should then be removed from the aquarium to prevent injury and allow further conditioning.

The basic pattern of spawning behavior observed is as follows. A spawning territory - defended primarily by the male seems to be flexible in location, dependent on the movements of the female and her choice of a site for spawning. In all spawnings observed, there was no site-preparation. The spawning surface was quite variable, ranging from a standpipe base to the sandy substrate of the tank. Courtship consists of both lateral and opercular displays by the male, as well as species-specific head vibrations performed either with the mouth open or with the upper jaw "pursed" over the lower and held close to the substrate. While the coloration of the female usually remains unchanged, the male develops a sooty black color over the branchiostegal rays and the leading edges of the ventral and anal fins. Courtship typically continues for 2-4 hours at which point spawning tubes become evident and spawning begins. After several "dry" passes typical of many cichlids, the female begins to press her body against the spawning site and expel eggs. Generally, only one or two are released during early passes, but as spawning progresses, as many as six can be expelled during a pass. After each pass the female backs up and takes the eggs into her mouth. After several such passes by the female, the male moves in front of her perpendicularly with his spawning tube directly in front of her mouth. As the male quivers, sperm are released which fertilize the eggs intrabuccally. Occasionally (but not frequently) the male may leave the female for a few seconds to chase fish that venture too close to the spawning site. As spawning continues, the female's buccal cavity gradually expands as it fills with eggs. During this period the female appears to "chew" the eggs as evidenced by continuous motion of the jaws. Contrary to the situation with substrate-spawning cichlids, Geophagus steindachneri clutches are quite small. Initial spawns in young females typically number only 12-15 fry, but spawn size increases to 45-60 in larger individuals. Spawning lasts ca. 60 minutes at which point the female loses interest in the continuously-courting male. At the completion of spawning the male should be removed to prevent stress or injury to the incubating female.

In a few cases, the male was observed to transfer his attentions to a second female shortly after spawning. If several receptive females are available, the male is capable of servicing them all, after which he should be returned to his tank.

A female Geophagus steindachneri broodingAlthough several incubating females can be kept together in the same aquarium, they usually show aggression toward each other in the form of "lateral butting" in which a female swims toward and gently pushes against the side of another. Such behavior does no damage, but may serve to gain the incubating female space or privacy for when the brood is released. Females probably delay release of free swimming fry when housed with other females or other species they consider a threat to newly-released fry. To observe post-release parental behavior and to assure harvest of fry, isolating brooding females is recommended. Although the incubation period is about twelve days at 28C, females seem to handle transfer with no loss to the brood after two days of incubation. Offering food to the female may also trigger release of the fry, as the female doesn't eat during the incubation period. Upon release, fry will accept newly-hatched Artemia nauplii or crushed flakes, although growth is much more rapid on the former. Females are excellent parents, continuing to offer buccal shelter for up to three weeks depending on the growth rate of the fry. As fry get larger, the female eventually becomes unable to accomodate the entire brood. As a result, the larger fry get left out, and these individuals are then chased from the immediate brooding area.

At ca. three weeks of age, the young fish begin typical eartheater "sifting" behavior and can be weaned to other foods such as chopped frozen blood worms, live adult brine shrimp, and flakes. With generous feedings, frequent partial water changes, and regular filter cleanings, fry can grow to lengths of 2.5 cm at eight weeks post-release and 4.5 cm at twelve weeks. Fry begin to become sexually dimorphic in regard to color at 14 weeks, at which point they can be sold or traded. At 20 weeks spawning activity can begin but is usually not successful until several attempts are made.

While the Red Hump Eartheater may not be the most colorful sifter available, its fascinating behavior and ease of captive propagation certainly make it a worthwhile addition to any collection of Neotropical cichlids. A challenge for advanced aquarists would be to acquire and propagate the less well known species of the "hump head" group, Geophagus pellegrini and Geophagus crassilabrus.

References Cited

Leibel, W. 1993. "Goin' south cichlids of the Americas part 9." Aquarium Fish Magazine 5(4):44-51.

Loiselle, P. V. 1974. "The identity of the red hump Geophagus." Buntbarsche Bulletin 40:9-19.


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