An interesting cichlid from Lake Victoria is the rarely seen Labrochromis ishmaeli. Unfortunately this specialized snail eater is thought to be extinct in the wild. Labrochromis ishmaeli is also rare in the aquarium hobby. Small founder colonies can still be obtained from private breeders but it would seem that the number of people working with this cichlid is shrinking as well. Hopefully as awareness of this amazing fish increases, other hobbyists will work to try and propagate it.
Superficially, Labrochromis ishmaeli is really not the most attractive of the available Lake Victoria cichlids. The female Labrochromis ishmaeli is a silver fish with six to eight black vertical bars running the length of the body. The male resembles a faded Astatotilapia sp. 44 in coloration. The vertical barring is imposed on a dull golden yellow background. The pelvic fins are an attractive deep black. The caudal and dorsal fins are tinted a translucent orange. A deeply curved cranial profile is reminiscent of another more common cichlid from the same waters, Ptyochromis salmon. The jaw structure of Labrochromis ishmaeli is most muscular and has evolved to exploit a food source consisting of mollusks, more specifically snails. Although I personally have never actually witnessed my herd devouring their food of choice, I have added snails to their tank and within a couple days, none were to be found. Unlike other snail eaters that extract the actual meat of the mollusk from its shell, Labrochromis ishmaeli ingests the entire animal, shell and all. It uses its formidable jaws to crush the snail's shell and passes this as a clump through its digestive system.
In the aquarium Labrochromis ishmaeli will accept all prepared foods. One should ensure a slightly greater amount of protein in the diet of all molluscivores and chopped clam usually suffices nicely. It is the opinion of some that if Labrochromis ishmaeli is not fed a diet that will allow it to make use of it's specialized jaws, proceeding generations will begin to lose this physical characteristic. The debate continues. There is little size difference between the sexes. The animals in our colony are all near 10 cm.
We have a group consisting of a single male and 5 female Labrochromis ishmaeli housed in a 65 gallon tank. Décor consists of a small rockwork formation and a fine grain sand substrate. These cichlids prefer to scan the open areas peacefully searching for food morsels. I don't know how males react with one another but the lone male in our colony does not seem to defend a territory. The only time this behavior changes is with the onset of spawning. The male Labrochromis ishmaeli excavates a depression in the substrate in an almost lek-like fashion. It is in this pit that the act of spawning occurs. The male shimmies in front of the ripe female all the while attempting to lure her to his nest. After a number of trials, the male and female circle each other. The female drops a single egg then quickly turns to scoop it up in her mouth. She then nips the male's occuli which he displays against the substrate. It is at this point that fertilization takes place. This continues until the female has expelled all her eggs. Clutch size is smaller than many other Lake Victorian haplochromines with 25 fry considered a good sized spawn. The larvae are free swimming after 18 days and grow quickly on crushed flake supplemented with baby brine shrimp and Cyclop-eeze.
For aspiring aquarists that appreciate working with a rare cichlid and would like to be directly involved ensuring survival for future generations, Labrochromis ishmaeli could be the fish you are looking for. What Labrochromis ishmaeli lacks in striking beauty, it certainly makes up for with peaceful disposition and diversity.
Originally published in The Lateral Line, the official publication of the Hill Country Cichlid Club.