Keeping and Breeding the Bolivian Ram, Microgeophagus altispinosa
by Lee Newman
A few years ago, while walking through one of the local tropical fish wholesalers, I came across a cichlid that was similar to the well-known ram, a long-time favorite of mine. At the time, I was unfamiliar with this species, but interested in it because of it's similarity to the ram. Not following the sensible route of first finding information on an intended purchase, I picked up four of them, each 4-5 cm total length and unsexable. After arriving home and settling the fish into their new home, I consulted the books in my library for information. According to the hobby and scientific literature, these fish, and the Venezuelan ram, have had a perplexing momenclatural history. This make it difficult to find information regarding these fishes. However, after reviewing the literature, the new fish were identified as Microgeophagus altispinosa, the Bolivian Ram.
The headquarters of the Ugandan Fisheries Research Institute (FIRI) in Jinja.
The following is a very brief explanation as to the reason I have used Microgeophagus in this article for the Bolivian Ram. I must confess, however, that although I like to know the proper names of the fish I keep, I am in no way qualified to make judgments on momenclatural issues, I just try to follow the literature! The Bolivian Ram was originally described as Crenicara altispinosa by Haseman in 1911. In 1971, Axelrod described the genus Microgeophagus to hold the ram from Venezuela and Colombia, M. ramirezi. Common in the trade and originally placed in the genus Apistogramma , M. ramirezi was moved to the new genus on the basis that it was very different in morphology and spawning behavior from Apistogramma. The Bolivian ram, with morphology and spawning behavior far more similar to the Venezuelan ram than Apistogramma , was also placed in Microgeophagus. To make this a little more complicated, Kullander in 1977 erected the genus Papiliochromis to hold both ram species, on the basis that Microgeophagus was considered nomen nudum. Some debate still exists concerning the correct genus for the rams, however, compelling arguments have been made by Robins and Bailey (1982) and Langhammer (1991) in favour of Microgeophagus. Hobbyists looking for information on these fishes would be well advised to use Microgeophagus and Papiliochromis, the two names commonly used in the literature.
Richter (1989), reports M. altispinisa from the Rio Mamore around the junction the Rio Guapore, near the town of Trinidad; the river basin of the Rio Guapore at Santa Cruz. in Bolivia; the Rio Quizer near San Ramon; the depression below Todos Santos in Bolivia and at the mouth of the Igarape near Guajara-Mirim in Brazil.
Comparisons to M. ramirezi
The Bolivian ram grows a little larger than it's Venezuelan cousin, male reaching about 10 cm (4 in.) total length, females remaining a little smaller. Aside from the size differences, male M. altispinosa are slimmer and less stocky than females, and also have extensions on the upper and Inner rays of the caudal fin. Consistent with the Venezuelan ram, these fish are biparental, open substrate spawners, quite opposite from the polygynous, cave-spawning Apistogramma.
In the Vancouver area, the M. altispinosa offered for sale tend to be a little thin into any kind of competitive environment. This usually presents few problems if a variety of small, live live and frozen foods are offered. Once fattened up, the fish can be placed in a species aquarium - or in a community aquarium- These fish are less shy if placed in the company of small active dither fish such as tetras. As with most dwarf cichlids, a 60 liter (15 gal.) aquarium represents the minimum for a bonded pair, but to experience more of the dynamic behaviour of these fish, a larger aquarium is needed.
I placed my four fish in a 200 liter (55 gal.) community aquarium, containing twelve tube-mouth pencilfish (Nannobrycon eques), twelve black-winged hatchet fish (Carnegiella marthae), seven rummy-nose tetras (Hemigrammus sp. aff. rhodostomus) and six three-lined corys (Corydoras trilineatus). The aquarium was filled with aged, unaltered Vancouver tap water with a pH of 6.3, GH of less than 10 dH and a temperature of 28°C (82°F) the aquarium. The aquarium was aquascaped with fine sand for digging, rounded rocks for spawning sites, waterlogged wood sections and plants for cover. Weekly 30% water changes and regular filter cleaning maintained water quality acceptable to these cichlids. They were fed a variety of foods; live adult , white worms, chopped earthworms, frozen blood worms, flakes and pellets.
The four fish settled in very well and within a couple of months became sexually dimorphic, revealing one male and three females. At this time the male became very active, chasing and displaying to the females. After several weeks, the male paired with one of the females and started to court her while still chasing the other females. The courtship consisted of reciprocal lateral displays and mouthing rocks in the courtship area. After several days of courtship, the pair started to clean and remove sand from around a rock near the front of the aquarium. At this point, the male became increasingly aggressive towards the other two females, chasing them more frequently. Although no dam- age was done to either of the two females, they were restricted to the back corners of the aquarium These two females proved to be effective target fish, as the bond between the pair seemed very strong.
Two days after the depression around the cleaned rock had been dug, the female's breeding tube could be seen. Several hours later, the pair started to spawn. The female started with several dry runs with the male paying close attention. Then the female laid a line of 5-7, light gray, ovoid eggs on the rock. The male quickly moved in behind the female, and when she moved away from the rock to circle around behind the male, he fertilized the eggs. The spawning lasted for about sixty minutes, resulting in a circular plaque of about 125 eggs.
Care of Eggs
When spawning had been completed, the female took up station over the egg covered rock to fan them with strong movements of her pectoral fin. The female leaned to one side, using only one pectoral fin for fanning, while the other was used to maintain her position over the eggs. For the majority of the time, the female tended the spawn and the male defended the spawning territory, chasing all other fish from the area. Frequently, the male would relieve the female of her spawn tending duties for about 5-10 seconds at a time. The male would approach the spawning site, the female would then move towards the male, and, as the two fish passed each other, a brief reciprocal lateral display signaled the exchange. Then the male would take up station over the spawn, fanning in the same manner as the female. The female would then return directly to the spawning site after 5-10 seconds. Interestingly, no display was observed when the female returned to resume her spawn tending duties. The eggs hatched in three days, with assistance from the female. Along with the eggs shells, only 11 white, infertile eggs were left behind on the rock.
The female moved the wrigglers by mouth into the depression that had been dug beside the spawning rock. The wrigglers were tended carefully by the female, for the 4-5 days it took for them to become free-swimming. The male continued to defend the spawning territory, checking on the brood frequently for several seconds at a time. For the brood care period, the yellowish body colour, the black eye stripe and the black lateral blotch of both the male and female, became very intense. The pair continued to feed during the spawning cycle, however, the female would not leave the brood for very long. The fry may be left with the adults, however, the numbers decrease quickly in a community aquarium, as the parents are not particularly efficient at defending the mobile fry. Also, the intake on any power filter should be covered with a sponge that does not restrict the water flow but, pre- vents the mobile fry from being sucked into the filter. To ensure some fry survival, I removed most of the fry, about 90%, soon after they became free-swimming. I placed them in a 40 liter (10 gal.) aquarium, with- out substrate, filtered with a mature sponge filter for the first week or so, then transferred them to a 120 liter (33 gal.) filtered with a sponge filter and a box filter with the lid removed (so it does not trap fry). I did, however, leave the pair in the community aquarium with a few fry to ensure pair bond stability, although, after several days, all those fry had been eaten by the other fish in the aquarium. Rearing the fry presents few problems. They can be started on live, newly hatched , with prepared foods added later as they grow. However, the fry seem sensitive to nitrates, which can cause mortality rates up to 100%. I lost the entire first brood to nitrate toxicity before realizing their sensitivity to it. To prevent further losses due to nitrate, I did a 30-50% water change every other day, combined with regular filter cleanings. This resulted in healthy, fast growing fry from the three subsequent broods the original pair produced. Another rather obvious precaution is to not crowd the fry excessively during the first few months. I used a 120 liter (33 gal.) aquarium for the 80-100 fry per spawn for the first three months or so, then moved them to a 90 cm, 160 liter (3 foot, 40 gal) aquarium to prevent crowding. After several months they begin to show the adult colour pattern, at which time they can be sold or traded to reduce density in the rearing aquarium. The young fish can usually be sexed at about 4 cm (1.6 inches) total length, around 5 months old.
The pair in the community aquarium continued to spawn about every three to four weeks, and the male, despite having two other obviously ripe females to distract him during the interval between spawnings, remained bonded with the female. While not as popular as M. ramirezi, M. altispinosa has a lot to recommend it. It seems a bit hardier and easier to spawn than the Venezuelan ram, and typical of Microgeophagus, it's colourful, has a lively disposition and interesting behavior.
Langhammer, J. K., 1991. "The Ram and its Nomenclature, Which Name Actually Has Precedence?", Buntbarsche Bulletin
, 147: pp. 18-19.
Richter., H.J., 1989, Complete Book of Dwarf Cichlids
, "T.F.H. Publications, Inc., Neptune City, NJ".
Robins, C. R. and R. M. Bailey, 1982, "The status on the generic names Microgeophagus, Pseudogeophagus
, and Papiliochromis
(Pisces: Cichlidae)", Copeia
1982 (1): pp. 208- 210.