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The Petrochromis Myth
by Leigh Kissane

My first experience with Petrochromis was probably similar to everybody else. While looking in one of my numerous books about Lake Tanganyika, I began to focus on pictures and information about cichlids that I had never kept. My attention was caught by a picture of a male Petrochromis sp. "Giant." The shape and coloration of the cichlid in this picture was not that remarkable. It was the description that captured my attention. In the caption that described this cichlid were the following words. "This species is totally unsuitable for the aquarium." Never being one who like being told what I can or cannot do, my curiosity was piqued. That being said, I have been an aquarist long enough to know that I did not know enough to just run out and buy some. Research was needed.

Finding information on the Petrochromis genus proved difficult. Most of the literature and information on the internet always had the caveat "buyer beware." The general consensus about Petrochromis was that they are extremely aggressive, need excessively large tanks and filtration, and are capable of killing an entire tank of fish in mere hours. I cannot explain how many times I read, or was told, that Petrochromis are not suitable for the home aquarist. Some of the advice I was given were as follows: "because of its size and aggressive nature, this species is unsuitable for the home aquarium," "males will kill each other in a matter of days," "never keep more than one male in the tank," and my personal favorite "why waste your money on a tankful of fish that are just going to kill each other?" Usually when I asked the person offering the advice if they had ever kept any Petrochromis variant, the reply, all too often, was "well no, but thatís what I have heard." Not exactly first hand experience.

Petrochromis Famula "Texas Gold" Petrochromis sp. "Red Fin Longola"

Based upon the lack of quality information available, I decided to take an educated risk and prepared a 125 gallon tank to house these seemingly unkeepable cichlids. I sent out some letters of interest to various importers in an attempt to locate some variants. Based upon what I had learned, I thought that these cichlids seemed interesting enough to give them a try. Luck would have it that a fellow aquarist had some Petrochromis in his possession but could not afford the time to properly care for them. A few telephone calls later and I had 18 incredible looking Petrochromis swimming in my 125 gallon tank. My Petrochromis groups consisted of 8 Petrochromis Famula "Texas Gold", 6 Petrochromis sp. "Red Fin Longola" and 4 Petrochromis sp. "Moshi yellow." That was the beginning of my fascination with the Petrochromis genus. One that will stay with me for many years to come.

Behavior:

Keeping in mind that I had been told over and over that these were incredibly aggressive cichlids, I was prepared for the worst when they arrived. To my amazement, once in my tank they practically ignored each other. I thought this might change as they may have been stressed by the transport. In fact, the next day, aggression levels were raised in the tank as they began to set their pecking order. It appeared that the dominant male "Texas Gold" was quickly attempting to establish his hold on the tank. Over the course of the next two weeks his status changed as the dominant male Longola established himself as the tank "boss." With the three different variants in the same tank I have been surprised to note that they still, for the most part, completely ignore each other. Aggression has been fixated upon conspecifics and very limited. The males defend a small territory and spend most of their time trying to entice the females into breeding. Only when a stray fish wanders into their territory will the male "escort" them out. My tanks are decorated with large rock piles and multiple caves. This set up seems to afford places for the males to stake out territories as well as letting the females hide should the need arise. Other than that, there have been no ripped fins, eaten scales, or stressed fish. In fact, I would say that the aggression level in my Petrochromis tank is easily less than that witnessed in my Tropheus tanks.

Stocking levels seem to play an important role in diminishing aggression levels. The more, the merrier, as the saying goes, seems to work well with Petrochromis. In small groups they cluster together and are very shy. Only when mixed in with others do they settle down. That being said, they are large fish and require a lot of filtration to keep the water crystal clear. It is fairly easy to observe if your Petrochromis are comfortable as breeding begins quickly once they settle in.

Breeding:

In my tank breeding is a non stop event. This is especially true after I have performed a water change. The males continually display to the females by flaring their fins and shaking in front of them. This is followed by the male attempting to escort the females back to the territory. Once there, the males flaring and color increases dramatically as he lays himself down on his side in front of the female. The female nuzzles his fins and they begin to circle each other. This behavior has taken as long as 48 hours or a quick as 30 minutes. During the breeding, the male becomes very aggressive towards all other tank mates, constantly chasing them away from the selected breeding area. This aggression is limited to chasing and I have never witnessed jaw locking or biting during breeding. The male quickly returns to the waiting female and completes the event. The female incubates the eggs for three weeks and then is stripped. I have noticed that if the female is permitted to hold for longer than that she begins to quickly eat the fry. In a matter of days she may have eaten them all. I am not sure if this is due to immaturity or is endemic to the genus. Observation of subsequent broods should help to narrow down the problem. At three weeks of age the fry still have their egg sacs attached and do not swim well. I have tried various methods of raising them, from tumbling to just placing them in a prepared grow out tank with a crushed coral substrate. Both seem to work equally well. At 4 weeks of age, the fry are free swimming and their egg sacs are almost completely gone. Petrochromis fry grow quickly. Feeding them twice daily can produce results of one inch length within 2 months. Three inches in length is quite common within 6 months. On multiple occasions, I have been surprised to note that a female that had been stripped of her eggs the day before was, again, holding a new brood the very next day. When this has occurred the female usually eats the eggs over the next few days. Perhaps this is a way for them to regain their strength after fasting for 3 weeks while they hold. I have not witnessed this behavior in any other cichlid to date. Clearly, more observation of this behavior is needed.

General Care and Maintenance:

I keep all of my Petrochromis on a spirulina-based diet. This mimics what they would consume in the wild. I find a once per day feeding sufficient to keep them healthy. They do, however, eat quite a bit of food and will stuff themselves so much that it appears their stomachs will explode. In between feedings they continually scrape the tank clean of all algae. I leave my tank lights on 16 hours per day and they do such a good job keeping the algae controlled that I can go a month or two in between glass cleaning.

As large fish, Petrochromis are exceedingly dirty. Copious amounts of waste build up in the tank in short order. This requires me to do 25%-50% water changes weekly. This keeps the water crystal clear and stimulates breeding activity. Filter pads also clog very quickly and require constant change. A simple vacuuming of the substrate removes most of the solid waste the fish have deposited.

Conclusion:

All in all my experience with Petrochromis has been a very rewarding one. The color and personality that they posses, more than make up for any perceived shortcomings. Their aggressive nature is, in my opinion, greatly exaggerated and these fish have garnered an undeserved negative reputation in the hobby. It is my sincere hope that this article will convince others to keep these magnificent fish in their aquariums. While I would not recommend Petrochromis for the beginning aquarist, as the price they command is substantial, they are fairly easy to care for and offer a great sense of satisfaction when they flourish in your aquarium. Provided the correct food, filtration, and tank size they should offer any aquarist years of enjoyment.

 

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