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Some Oddities In My Tank
by Marc Elieson

This article is an on-going account of the odd happenings in my fish tank. Many of these are common events that are observed by anyone familiar with African Cichlids. Some, on the other hand, are mysteries, and others, are...well, just plain strange. Where possible, I have attempted to document these oddities with original photographs.

In the Habit of Digging

African Cichlids, and especially mbuna, are well known for their tendency to dig. It only takes a couple of hours and a crowd of two or three mbuna to uncover an undergravel filter buried under several inches of gravel. In my tank, the most active diggers are Pseudotropheus elongatus "Likoma Island," Pseudotropheus elongatus "Chailosi," Labidochromis sp. "Perlmutt," and Labeotropheus trewavasae "Red Top." These are the most active, perhaps, because they are perhaps, also the most territorial. By digging the gravel down to the bottom of the tank, they create their own territories, and hopefully, a spawning bed.

Nature Organism Fin Fish Marine biology
Bird Organism Beak Wing Event

While this practice of digging and rearranging the decor in my tank can be annoying at times, I find it more entertaining than anything else. After I have pushed the gravel back into its original location, covering newly-made hollows, my Cichlids will shovel as much gravel into their mouths, swim a short distance away (usually up to the glass), and spit the rocks like bullets, one at a time. Often, as displayed here, they will swim up towards the top of the tank to spit the rocks, and they will come cascading down. Humorously, other fish will dart to inspect the falling rocks, and gobble them up, thinking they are food, only to spit them out shortly thereafter. These fish will repeatedly shovel and spit until they have restored their shallow pit to its condition, prior to my having messed things up.


Organism Grass Terrestrial plant Plant Water

This next behavior is just as humorous to watch, but is a little bit more odd. African Cichlids actually "yawn." Or at least, that what it appears to look like. I have observed this behavior in fish as young as a few hours. They puff out their fins and open their mouths as wide as they can, holding that position for almost a full second, and then close their mouths, collapsing their fins. I have no idea why they do it, although I know some hypothesize that they do this to keep their jaws they can fit more guppies in their mouths. I really doubt this is the reason, but maybe they yawn for the same reason as we do: to get more oxygen into the blood. Who knows? All I know is that this is a pretty odd behavior that I have never observed in any other scientific family outside of cichlidae.


When you see other freshwater and saltwater fish rubbing and scratching themselves against rocks, wood, plants, gravel, or anything hard, you can pretty much count your unlucky stars because your fish most likely has a parasite. Fish will scratch themselves, trying to remove the source of the irritation. When African Cichlids scratch themselves, another irritation is at play. I have seen African Cichlids at all ages scratch themselves, even a few hours after being released from their mother's buccal cavity, and never have I lost one of these fish to a parasite. What causes them to scratch is usually due to improper water conditions or their being introduced to water with a different set of properties.

African Cichlids require very hard water, on the order of a KH of 14 to 17. Unless the water has a natural buffer, the minerals that make the water hard, will "fall out," or precipitate out in about a week's time. If that happens, your water will slowly become softer than is ideal. This is the number one cause for an African Cichlid's scratching. The second most common is following a drastic water change with a change in temperature, pH, or hardness. Even if you are restoring the water to an ideal pH or hardness, you will observe an increase in scratching for the first hour after the water change. That is because they are having to adjust to the new osmolarity. Their skin will be irritated and their scratching is in attempt to alleviate that discomfort. Ironically, if the water conditions are not brought within ideal ranges and the scratching is allowed to continue, they will scratch their scales right off. Wounds like this often lead to an infection, and if left untreated, death. So, if you find your fish scratching heavily, check your pH and hardness.

Second-Hand Algae Eaters

Mbuna are primarily algae-eaters, but will eat anything they can get their teeth on, even if it will kill them. For about a year, I kept two plecos in my mbuna tank.

Adaptation Terrestrial plant Grass Event Terrestrial animal

I have tried to keep the algae down in my tank, and as a consequence, my two plecos never had too much to dine on. About the only thing they'd ever get was a spirulina tablet. I would wait until after the lights were out to drop these in the tank, because otherwise, the mbuna would scarf them down before the plecos ever knew they had been dropped in. Even still, the Cichlids would chow down on them in the dark. To make a long story short, I am guessing that one of my plecos starved to death because one day I noticed its skeleton. What makes this story interesting is that the skeleton appeared within an hour - I had been by the tank a couple of hours earlier and there was no such skeleton in the corner of my tank. What is even more odd is that the pleco had its entire body consumed, minus some skin and the bones. And the body was laid in such a position that it seems difficult to have eaten him in such a manner: on his stomach. Notwithstanding their vegetable diet, mbuna will certainly go after second-hand algae.

Who Dunnit?

This next odd happening is a murder mystery of sorts. For years I have been trying to breed Pseudotropheus demasoni, a fairly new dwarf species from Lake Malawi. I have been unsuccessful thus far (but refuse to give up) because of one odd happening or another. The one chronicled here is by far the most bizarre.

One afternoon I noticed that a male and female, currently the only two Ps. demasoni in my tank, were beginning to seriously court. Up to this point, these two had amicably shared the tank with about three dozen other mbuna.

Photograph Water Organism Grass Marine biology

They never seemed to fight or rough each other up. However, Demasoni are known for their intraspecies aggression.

Okay, back to the story. They were beginning to court quite seriously. I stopped to watch them for a few minutes, and then had to move on to some tasks I needed to get done. Before leaving, however, I noticed that the anal fin of the male had a huge chunk missing, with both egg spots having been chewed off. I marveled, thinking that their courtship must have been pretty aggressive at one point, but was relatively mild at the moment. Note, the female is smaller than the male.

Well, after about two hours, I again passed by the tank. My attention was drawn to the tank as I noticed several fish fighting over some thing. As I peered up close to get a look at it, it was the skull bone of the female Demasoni!!! Who killed her? I'm guessing that she wouldn't spawn and he grew frustrated and killed her. She was most probably consumed by the other, larger tank mates. Like the pleco, it only took a couple of hours for a perfectly healthy and active fish to be reduced to nothing more than a skeleton. ...And people rave about pirahnas...what about Cichlids?!?

Pregnancy Snacks

Usually mouthbrooding females fast during the entire length of the incubation period. This can last up to 32 days, as it once happened with my female Labeotropheus trewavasae a year ago. She might have gone longer, but I stripped the eggs because I was afraid she might swallow them or starve herself to death. This particular female was the most prolific of any Cichlid I've ever owned. During her ninth pregnancy (in less than 12 months), I noticed she was not just nibbling at the flake food others were eating, but she would consume a good amount. This continued throughout the entire incubation period. After four weeks I removed her to a pitcher, which is where I usually put holding females so that I can either strip them right away or on the following day. I should mention that I have stripped the eggs from this female every time but once. Well, I didn't have time to strip the fry that night, but to my surprise, when I checked on her the next morning I discovered she had spit out 24 free-swimming fry. I put a few flakes in the pitcher for her and planned on returning her to the main tank and putting the fry in my grow-out tank that afternoon. When I returned home that afternoon I found the fry happily swimming about in the pitcher but found the female dead. Her gills were still enlarged and her mouth was fixed in an open position. It was very odd the way she died. I don't think she was too emaciated or fatigued. The only thing I can think of is that she ran out of oxygen.

Elusive Prey

About a year ago I made an unwise purchase: I bought an adult Dimidiochromis compressiceps and put him in my mostly mbuna tank. I knew he was a piscovore and that Haps and Mbuna don't mix too well, but I thought it would work, nonetheless. Besides, most of the mbuna were full grown anyway. Well, things were okay until I purchased several medium-small mbuna and introduced them to this tank. He immediately began "tracking" the Ps. demasoni and then lunged at him to my great dismay. Luckily, the demasoni are a tough fish - she darted out of his mouth the next time he opened to get a better bite on her. And believe or not, ...she survived. She was small enough that she fit entirely in his mouth but too small for him to have really clamped his jaws about her. After he swallowed her up, I could see her little head inside his mouth. It reminded me of something you would see on a cartoon. I dashed my hand into the tank without even thinking, furious that he would swallow my new fish. Fortunately, I didn't have to wring his neck because she got away. He did the same thing to two small Ps. polit that I had too. The same thing happened with them, all that same night. After trying out the demasoni, he tried the polit, but met with similar results. They too amazingly survived, despite horrible gashes in their sides.

I have heard that D. compressiceps can be very cruel, tearing small fish apart and then leaving them to die. I don't know what he would have done if I had not pulled these small fishes out right away, but he might have finished them off because he was still trying to "track" them. I thought this story deserved a place among the other oddities of my tank because he had swallowed the fish whole and yet they escaped and survived.

A Hyperdominant Male Ego

For almost two years I have kept two Haplochromis sp. 44 "Red Tail" pairs and two Pundamilia nyererei "Python Island" pairs. The nyererei have only successfully spawned once, but unfortunately, she spit the eggs out after a few days. The dominant male of the Red Tails has spawned with both females dozens of times, producing hundreds of fry. This dominant male is definitely the dominant fish of the tank. He will never let the subdominant Red Tail male display his full color. The subdominant male attempts to show off his colors once every few days but this elicits some very serious aggression by the male who quickly tries to quench this uprise. Needless to say, this subdominant male has never spawned with any of the females (not that he hasn't tried).

Water Fin Organism Fish Underwater

What is even more interesting is that this dominant male has also prevented my nyererei from successfully spawning since that first time. Every time the dominant nyererei male tries to spawn with a female nyererei, the Red Tail male will come racing across the tank and wedge himself right in between the two nyererei! Talk about dominance! The Red Tail has never tried to mate with the nyererei females but won't have the nyererei mating...not while he's in charge.

Kids Having Kids

Water Azure Fin Fish Marine biology

In my 20-gallon grow-out tank I have fry anywhere from ½ cm to 2 cm long. Just recently I noticed that three of these 2 cm fry where carrying a clutch of eggs! Two of these were Haplochromis sp. "Ruby Green" and one was a female Haplochromis sp. 44 "Red Tail." These females are not even 1/40 the size of the adult males, yet they have spawned with males of similar size (2 cm) and have now been carrying the eggs for almost a week. This is just too quick to be having kids, don't you think?

You Call It...Heads or Tails?

Just a couple of hours before posting this segment I was working on my 20-gallon fry tank, which is now situated next to my 75-gallon grow-out tank. Anyway, I had been busy all day doing different things and had completely forgotten to feed the fish in my 75-gallon tank. Well, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that my male Pundamilia nyererei "Python Island" was doing SOMETHING. Well, I stood up and took a closer look...and low and behold he had bitten into a female Labeotropheus trewavasae!!! In fact he had swallowed her halfway and was steadily trying to cram more of her down his gullet.

Fin Organism Fish Rectangle Marine biology

I could not believe it. What had possessed him to do such a thing. He is not a predator and I have never seen him go after any other fish (except for the two females) very seriously. When he is trying to spawn, he gets nasty but never really makes contact. In order to have taken this fish in this manner he must have really caught her by surprise. Well, I happened to have my camera in my hand because I was documenting the new filtering system I had just finished on my 20-gallon fry tank and so I was fortunate enough to grab a couple of pictures. As I was frantically searching for a net (to save his life more than hers as I figured she was a "gonner") I noticed that he would try to suck her in more and more but this seemed ridiculous because he had not really bitten into her and could not digest her in this manner. ...And I noticed that he would occassionally thrash his head, trying to snap her body. Well, I grabbed a net, caught him quite easily and with some difficulty removed the female. I had trouble because his mouth was open to the widest extreme (I didn't think it could open so wide!) and her dorsal fin would catch on his lip. Anyway, I separated them. She had no visible wounds and looks as if she may survive. As for the male nyererei, ...I don't know what to do. I guess I had better do a better job of feeding them so this doesn't happen with some of the more valuable juveniles I have in that tank.
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