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How To Strip Mouthbrooders
by Marc Elieson

I tend to be a naturalist when it comes to my fish. That was, at least until my first holding mouthbrooder (Hap. sp. "Ruby Green") didn't carry her brood full term (and ended up swallowing the eggs) and my second holding female (Lab. trewavasae) held her eggs for over 31 days. At that point, she was very emaciated and weak. Concerned, I tried to strip the eggs. I looked at dozens of web sites where people explained methods for stripping the eggs using a turkey baster, or a Q-tip. The owner at my LFS told me that he just puts a pregnant female in a cup or holds her out of water for a minute in order to get her to spit them out. Well, the turkey baster idea sounded pretty experimental and the other ideas didn't work. So on day 32, I took the female to the LFS where I bought her. The dealer was kind enough to get them out and I brought home 24 fry!

Organism Pattern Mesh Wing Thigh

This is a photo of me stripping the eggs from a female Labidochromis caerulus after three weeks of "holding." Note how I grip her using the net.

What that LFS owner did was hold her lower lip open with his finger nail, while holding her by the gills with his other hand. To prevent her slippery body from getting away, he held her wrapped in a fish net. So then, holding her out of water, with her mouth being held open with his finger nail, he dipped her head into the water until all of the fry swam out. Now, this process took a good two - three minutes, and I was a little uncomfortable having her out of the water for so long. I use this same technique now but hold the female under the water.

Often times, I don't have to hold her mouth open in order to get them all out. I will use my finger nail to get about 10 out. After that, she will typically ram the sides of the net, trying to get away, and in the process, drops the rest...right there in my net!

If you don't wait long enough and end up pulling the fry out too early, they will still be in egg-form, "unhatched." If you are caught in a situation with eggs and no mother willing to take them back (as has happened to me when I have pulled a fish out of the community tank), you will need to raise the eggs in a tumbler, otherwise they will succumb to egg rot.

Organism Fin Creative arts Fish Adaptation

To prevent a situation like this, however, I wait 2-2.5 weeks before I remove the female from the tank with the other fish. That way, if she does spit the eggs, they are developed enough that I don't have to worry about egg rot. And, I typically strip the female at this time anyway.

There are at least two advantages to stripping a female early:

  1. She doesn't shrink as much due to fasting
  2. She can join her tank mates and mate again all that much sooner.

Once your female has released the fry, it is typically a good idea to keep your female in a tank all by herself for 1-7 days depending upon how aggressive your male is, and how weak your female appears. I wait until she has eaten 2-3 meals. (This is also a good way to ensure that all of the fry have been released.) A recovering female usually does not show interest in food for 12 hours until after "releasing."

I don't necessarily recommend the turkey baster method for stripping a holding female, but here is the technique. Note, it works very well but can be a bit brutal on a female.

  1. Insert the female head down into the tube of a kitchen baster.
  2. Insert the lower 1/3 of the baster into a container of water from the nursery tank.
  3. Replace the baster bulb and gently squeeze the bulb. The young are safely expelled from the mother's mouth and into the water.

Stripping mouthbrooders is often times necessary but care should be taken so as not to injure the female's jaw and to not overly stress her. Some hobbyists argue that stripping should not be done as it leads to future generations of females who won't "hold" their fry full term. I'm not saying this isn't a potential consequence even though I have not seen proof of this myself, but what I am saying is that many times this practice can actually be better for your fish than to allow them to release the fry naturally. And, it certainly has the potential for higher yields of fry over time.
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