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Cyprichromis leptosoma
by Marc Elieson

The genus Cyprichromis contains some of the most popular and spectacular Tanganyikan cichlids in the hobby. Prized for their mild temperament, schooling behavior, and dazzling colors, they can be found in nearly every hobbyist's Tanganyikan community aquarium.

Water Fin Underwater Organism Fish

In the wild, Cyprichromis (or Cyps for short) also enjoy a wide distribution, occurring all over the lake wherever there is a rocky shore with deep and clean water. At the present time, the genus Cyprichromis has been divided into four species (leptosoma, microlepidotus, pavo, zonatus) and two undescribed groups ("Leptosoma Jumbo" and "Leptosdoma Goldfin") (Konings 2003). Each of these six types is very similar to the others in appearance and behavior; notwithstanding, significant differences do exist. Out of fairness, we will limit our discussion here to only Cyprichromis leptosoma.

Cyprichromis leptosoma is found only along the eastern shoreline of Lake Tanganyika, between Kigoma in Tanzania and Mpulungu in Zambia, a distance of over 300 miles. Five geographical variants of leptosoma are recognized currently and each occurs in both blue and yellow-tailed morphs:

Distribution: Around Kigoma.
Blue-tailed males: Yellowish head with blue dorsal and anal fins.
Yellow-tailed males: Yellowish head with white dorsal and anal fins.

Distribution: Bulu Point to Kasoje (including area around
Karilani Island).
Blue-tailed males: Blue dorsal fin with yellowish tinge and a single
dark ocellus at its posterior tip. Yellow-orange
Yellow-tailed males: Blue dorsal fin with no ocellus.

Distribution: Kasoje to Ikola.
Blue-tailed males: Yellow dorsal fin.
Yellow-tailed males: Blue dorsal fin and bright yellow anal fin.

Distribution: Utinta Bay to Samazi.
Blue-tailed males: Blue dorsal fin. Some males may have a dark
ocellus visible at the posterior tip.
Yellow-tailed males: Blue dorsal fin with a yellow ocellus at the
posterior tip.

Distribution: Kasanga to Mpulungu.
Blue-tailed males: Light-blue dorsal fin speckled throughout with
small, dark spots.
Yellow-tailed males: Blue dorsal fin with black band along its base.

Cyprichromis leptosoma is a rather small and slender sardine-like cichlid. Its most noteworthy difference from the other Cyprichromis types is its smaller adult size and shallower body. In the aquarium, adult lengths range from 3 3½ inches (7½ 9 cm). Larger specimens as long as 4½ inches (11½ cm) are sometimes found in the wild, but these are rare. It is not unusual for females to grow as large as males. Juveniles will begin to breed at lengths as small as 1¾ inches. Maximum size usually requires a full two years to attain. Growth is slow but steady. Consistent, frequent feedings and clean water are important factors for speeding it along.

Everyone loves a colorful fish. C. leptosoma is no exception, coming in a wonderful assortment of colors black, purple, yellow, white, fluorescent blue, and even turquoise.

Photograph Purple Organism Fin Fish supply

Their body shape and neon colors are reminiscent of fruity popsicles. Cyps will rarely disappoint the dedicated hobbyist. Like most Tanganyikan cichlids, Cyps require excellent husbandry for many months before they will blossom. You'll know when their color is ripening once they begin to "shake." Their color will eventually reach its full splendor a few months after the first spawn takes place. Females are usually pretty dull and drab, but males' coloration more than compensate. What's more, even the subdominant males have excellent coloration in contrast to the many other cichlids of which only the alpha male will display full coloring.

Cyprichromis leptosoma is certainly among the quintessential community Tanganyikan cichlids. Their presence has an uncanny relaxing effect on the other inhabitants of a community aquarium. By nature, Cyps are a bit skittish (perhaps the other tankmates realize this) and so when the Cyps are out in the open, "it must be safe," the others seem to surmise. I've noticed that when Cyps are present, the other cichlids spend a greater amount of time out in the open instead of tucked in the rocks or shells. Cyps "complete" a Tanganyikan community setup because they fill the top half of the aquarium whereas most cichlids occupy only the bottom half or the rocky niches. Cyps are always out in the open, usually in full display.

Cyps are not very aggressive and makes a great dither for other Tanganyikan cichlids. Their mouths are very small and pose little threat to the aquarium's other inhabitants. They must not be housed with fish that will bully them if they are to stay in top condition. Complaints from hobbyists who are unable to spawn their Cyps are often keeping them with rough tankmates or in too small of a group.

Nature Water Terrestrial plant Organism Marine biology

In the wild, Cyps live in schools that number in the thousands. For the aquarium, they do best in groups of at least twelve or more. In groups of this size, more than one male will almost always be colored-up. Over the years, I have kept Cyprichromis species in varying numbers and have observed that the larger the group and the aquarium, the happier and more relaxed they tend to be. Cyps can be kept in various gender ratios, but personally, I prefer to keep a few more males to females. My experience has been that males are more colorful and the aquarium is more active overall when the males have increased competition.

Cyprichromis leptosoma can be kept in aquariums as small as 29 gallons but 40 gallons is really the smallest size aquarium recommended if spawning is a goal.

Water Nature Fin Organism Fluid

The aquarium should have some tall rocks to imitate a ledge but these should be few in number so as to keep the aquarium open for swimming. The substrate is of little importance since this fish does not feed from the bottom or spawn on it. The substrate should be smooth, however, to prevent injury. When Cyps get spooked (which is a common occurrence), they will dart down and across the bottom. Live plants are a viable option since they neither eat nor uproot them. Plants will offer protection to young and function as an additional hiding place when adults retreat. Cyprichromis species are jumpers so a tight-fitting lid is warranted. The most important aspect of decorating the aquarium is to preserve as much swimming room as is possible.

Cyps feed on the zooplankton found in the open water column. They are specialized feeders and very adept at hunting. Instead of taking clumsy bites at the tiny food particles, their mouths have a structural specialization that permits food to be sucked straight into their buccal cavity. This structural specialization is a highly protrusible mouth. When opened, the mouth shoots forward, forming a small projected tube, and pulls in whatever is just in front of it. This process is very rapid and occurs in the blink of an eye. In fact, it is this speed which is responsible for the vacuum effect, not the tube itself. The rapid expansion of the buccal cavity creates negative pressure within the mouth, thereby creating a powerful suction (Coleman 2002).

Close inspection reveals that the outer teeth of Cyprichromis are not very formidable; they therefore rely on their pharyngeal teeth to chew and grind food into sizes that can then be swallowed. It is important to keep this in mind when selecting their diet. Remember that their mouths have been designed to eat very small food particles. The danger exists that if the wrong type of food is fed it may become lodged and stuck. In addition to small pellets and premium flake foods, other suitable foods include black worms, glass worms, red worms, brine shrimp, daphnia, and plankton. I tend not to feed my fishes live foods due to the extra effort and space required, but I have found that Cyps thrive best when supplied with periodic live feedings. Whatever foods you choose, consider that a protein-rich diet is necessary to bring this cichlid into breeding condition.

Photograph Water Nature Fin Organism

From a feeding perspective, Cyps are perfectly adapted to a community setup. They are quick eaters and will unlikely get out-competed for food. They will particularly thrive in a setup with sloppy eaters. With the aid of their large eyes, they can pick out even the smallest morsels of food left in the water column. The incredible resolution of their sight was demonstrated to me the first time I fed them baby brine shrimp (bbs). The bbs were intended for some new, wriggling Lamprologus ocellatus. I was used to my Lake Malawi cichlids who ignored (or couldn't see) bbs after they reached a couple of inches. You can imagine my surprise when they went crazy, zooming around the aquarium, sucking up every last little speck!

These fish are mid-water feeders, meaning they prefer to take their food from below the surface. Micro-sinking pellets are preferred over those that float. Likewise, flake food should be offered by releasing a pinch under water. Avoid sprinkling it. If given floating foods, they will eat from the surface but this should be avoided. Cyps have been known to catch air bubbles which may become lodged in their throats. While this is rarely harmful, it should be avoided.

Cyps generally eat small snacks throughout the day in the wild. Frequent small feedings in the aquarium are therefore desirable. These fish are ravenous eaters who know nothing of satiety. I have yet to see a pellet hit the sand! Watching them eat is almost as much fun as watching them school, display, or spawn. Cyps can be sensitive to water quality, but as far as contracting Bloat, I have never seen it. I don't want to say they're bullet-proof, but they're darn close.

Cyps are maternal mouthbrooders, but they are no ordinary mouthbrooder as breeding takes place at a virtual nest located three-dimensionally in the water column. As mentioned previously, Cyps school in the open water. What was not mentioned is that there are several different types of schools. The largest school is comprised of females and non-territorial males. Apart from this school, near the rocks, is a school of sexually active males, who have staked out three-dimensional territories in the water column. These males are in a constant state of display to ripe females. Once a female spawns with one of these males, she joins the third type of school which is made up of mouthbrooding females and the male continues displaying (Konings 2003). This form of anonymous breeding called lekking - is not unique to Cyps alone, but does represent an advanced form of mating (Barlow 2000).

Photograph Nature Organism Fin Water

While the aquarium is too small to replicate lekking on this scale, it can be observed to some degree. Once they're settled in and have bred at least a couple of times, all the reproductively capable females will synchronize their spawns. It's amazing to watch as an entire group spawns over a two day period. Likewise, females will release their fry around the same time.

The mating takes place once an interested female responds to a male's courtship and enters his territory. The male begins by performing a headstand, facilitated by the presence of an elongated swim bladder. Vigorously flapping the posterior tip of his dorsal fin as well as his ventral fins, the female nuzzles his vent with her mouth. The male then releases a visible cloud of milt, which is inhaled by the female while snapping at the flapping ventral fins. Trading places, the female then assumes a headstand position while the male nuzzles her. At this point, the male moves away a short distance (sometimes a foot) while the female drops a single egg. The female, still with her head down, backs upward to catch the falling egg in her mouth. She drops two to four eggs in this same manner before the male returns. The female nuzzles him again, and her mouth can be seen opening and closing, inhaling the male's milt. This is repeated several times until the female has exhausted her supply of eggs.

It has been supposed by many that the yellow tipped ventral fins of the male act as egg dummies, just as similar markings on anal fins serve to entice females to spawn. It has been noted, however, that the color of the ventral fin tips doesn't exactly match that of the eggs (Konings 1998). One author has suggested that the yellow coloration probably guides the female to the male's vent to fertilize the eggs (Barlow 2000). Another author proposed that the vibration itself triggers the female to snap at the ventral fins while the ingested sperm prior to spawning functions as the releasing factor in the female (Konings 1998).

Organism Water Fin Fish Rectangle

Spawns number anywhere from five to twenty, depending upon the size and condition of the female. Broods are usually modest in size because of the female's rather small mouth. I am always amazed at how tightly females pack their mouths. There have been times when females were so stuffed with eggs that they were unable to completely close their mouths. The eggs in turn stretch the skin around the buccal cavity, thinning it enough to provide the hobbyist with a clear view of the mouth's contents. Through this integumental window, one can observe with excitement the transformation of the eggs into free-swimming fry.

After nearly four weeks, the fry are ready to be released. If provided, the female will spit her fry into small crevices between rocks. Fry are then left to fend for themselves. They are not watched over by their mother or guarded against predators. The good news is that while adults do not protect their young, they do not prey upon their young either. Fry will school together, apart from the adults. As they reach an inch or so in length, juveniles will join the school of adult fish.

In the wild, mouthbrooding females will release their fry at reefs where maternal Lepidiolamprologus profundicola are busy guarding their young from predators. The young C. leptosoma rely on the presence of this surrogate mother. Even though she does not actively protect them, her presence is sufficient to prevent appreciable losses. For instance, it has been documented that when a maternal L. profundicola is present, fry of C. leptosoma are attacked by predators at a rate of two per hour. When she leaves, this figure jumps to about ten per hour. And those without a baby sitter are attacked about twenty times per hour! (Watanabe 2000).

Stripping Cyps is unnecessary if the aquarium contains only Cyprichromis or other non-predatory cichlids (e.g., Xenotilapia or Callochromis species). Stripping these females is easy and effortless, thanks to a trick I learned from aquarist Eric Glab. With this method (described below), I can catch, strip, and return a female to the aquarium in less than two minutes. Before you begin you will want to consider where the fry will go once they've been stripped (e.g., a bucket with aquarium water or breeder net) and prepare according. Use only a fine-mesh net for catching brooding females and wait until after the lights have been off for at least an hour or two. Attempting to catch them while they are awake is foolhardy since they are easily spooked and very quick. It is okay, however, to turn on a lamp in the room to find the female to be stripped, but don't turn on the aquarium lights. A dim light is best because it will prevent them from waking very quickly.

Fin Organism Fish Marine biology Tail

The mouth of Cyprichromis species is built with a wide-slinging hinge, which allows for easy stripping using only one hand! This method is very quick and does not damage the female. After catching a female with your net, pick her up in one (wet) hand, holding her like you would a cigarette lighter. She should be positioned in your hand such that her head pokes out about an inch, with your thumb wrapped under her breast. Quickly move to where you will release the fry and then gently push your thumb into her body - in the area between her breast and buccal cavity. Her mouth will then pop open and lock in this position. Now rotate your wrist, turning her upside down and gently dip the female in the water with a bobbing motion. Within a few seconds all of the fry will drop out of the mother's buccal cavity. After all the fry have been evacuated, carefully return the female to the aquarium. Once you remove your grip, her mouth will close again. When all the females have been stripped, turn off any lights in the room so they will drift back to sleep.

For what it's worth, I thought I might share a few stocking recommendations with the reader, based upon my personal experiences. Take these for what they are worth. In any event, I hope they will help you get started on the road to keeping some Cyps of your own.

29-gallon aquarium

Cyprichromis leptosoma - 6

Tanganicodus irsacae 6

Synodontis petricola - 2

40-gallon aquarium

Cyprichromis leptosoma - 12

Telmatochromis vittatus 3

Neolamprologus leleupi 3

Julidochromis ornatus 3

Synodontis petricola - 3

55-gallon aquarium

Cyprichromis leptosoma - 16

Julidichromis regani 3

Xenotilapia ochrygenys 6

Tanganicodus irsacae 6

Synodontis petricola - 4-6

75-gallon aquarium

Cyprichromis leptosoma - 18-24

Neolamprologus brevis 4

Julidochromis regani "Kipili" - 6

Enantiopus melanogenys - 8

Synodontis petricola - 3-6

75-gallon aquarium

Cyprichromis leptosoma - 12

Eretmodus cyanostictus 2

Julidochromis transcriptus - 2

Chalinochromis brichardi - 2

Lamprologus ocellatus - 5

75-gallon aquarium

Cyprichromis leptosoma - 12

Neolamprologus brichardi 8

Synodontis petricola - 3-6

There is no other cichlid quite like Cyprichromis! I could not imagine creating a Tanganyikan community aquarium without these fruity-colored sardines. They fill the aquarium with color, movement, and harmony. Their temperament makes them a delight, and their constant desire to spawn keeps the aquarium full of excitement. At any given moment in my 75-gallon aquarium there are always three to four males "shaking", with their fins in full display and the posterior tips of their dorsal fins flapping! I can think of no other cichlid who attempts to spawn all day long, from sun up to sun down without causing damage to other aquarium inhabitants. Cyprichromis leptosoma is a real pleasure to keep and with dozens of different varieties available, you wouldn't go wrong.
Eye Plant Petal Tints and shades Font

Literature Cited

  1. Barlow, George. 2000. The Cichlid Fishes: Nature's Grand Experiment. Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Coleman, Ronald. 2002. "Cichlids and Science: Powerful Predators." Cichlid News 11 (1):31-34.
  3. Konings, Ad. 2003. "New Cyprichromis from Zambia." Cichlid News 12 (2):6-15.
  4. ____. 1998. Tanganyikan Cichlids in their Natural Habitat. Cichlid Press, El Paso, TX.
  5. Watanabe, Takeshi. 2000. "The nesting site of a piscivorous cichlid, Lepidiolamprologus profundicola, as a safety zone for juveniles of a zooplanktivorous cichlid, Cyprichromis leptosoma, in Lake Tanganyika." Environmental Biology of Fishes 57 (2):171-177.


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