“Ummm, how, errr. nice” my wife sighed when I showed her the picture of Schwetzochromis stormsi in the Baensch Aquarium Atlas Photo Index 1-5. “Are you sure you don’t want to try that pretty electric yellow fish instead” she asked? “Labidochromis caeruleus? Sure, they’re nicely colored, but just look at the contrast between black and tan on the stormsi” I exclaimed. “Just what we need – more black, brown, and tan ugly fish in the house” she laughed.
Page 695 in the index. I had memorized both the page number and what the Atlas had said over the previous two years while I searched for this fish. Found in the Congo (now Zaire) River drainage in Africa, only 6.5 cm long. Neutral pH, 72-77 deg. F water. An omnivorous mouthbrooder. The picture of a stout-headed, cream bodied fish with dark saddles and vertical barring was indelibly etched into my brain as I scoured tank after tank hoping to catch a glimpse of one. I could find no other info or anyone who had ever seen this fish in person. Though this fish was at the top of my “must-have” list, I had just about given up hope in ever finding some. Then Ed Pecord of Amherst Aquarium emailed me. He knew I was interested in this fish, and he had found some for me.
There were nine of them in the tank when I arrived, and I brought them all home. Eight were about 1 ˝” TL while the last was a full 2″ TL. Drab, mottled gray in color, they reminded me of Steatocranus casuarius, the buffalohead. These small fish even swam like the buffalohead, making short hops along the bottom of the tank. They didn’t hover in midwater, but sank like stones to the bottom once they stopped moving their fins. It appeared to me that the stormsi had poorly developed swim bladders too. I didn’t find it surprising, seeing as their ranges overlap in the wild.
The stormsi were placed in a 29 gal tank, which they had to themselves. Water parameters were 7.2 pH, 2dKH, and 5dGH. Temperature was kept at 75 deg. F. A Marineland Eclipse3 unit provided lighting and filtration. Driftwood, caves, and a few plastic plants were used to break up sight lines and define multiple territories. The fish were skittish and huddled together en masse in one cave. On the rare occasions when they ventured out, it was always as a shoal.
Feeding time was easy, as the stormsi greedily devoured any food I added to the tank. Pellets, flakes, frozen bloodworms, glassworms, brine shrimp, krill, algae wafers, earthworms, and even bits of banana were all eaten with gusto as long as they sank to the bottom. The stormsi showed no interest in floating foods.
On day # 8, I found one of the stormsi perched on the heater up and away from the rest of the group huddled in the cave below. At this size I could find no visual clues of sexual differences, but this fish was making the unmistakable chewing movements of a female who was holding eggs. Closer inspection showed that was exactly the case. I was surprised that a female less than 2″ long would be mature enough to breed, but with Baensch listing an adult size of 6.5 cm I guessed she was already an adult. So these small, meek, drab fish were easy to breed. At least that’s what I had read and experienced up to now. I was about to find out just how wrong I was.
I awoke the next day to find the female dead. Her buccal cavity had been torn open and the developing eggs had been eaten. As there were only the remaining eight stormsi in the tank, one must have been the culprit. Every day for the next three days, I found another stormsi dead from violence. It was frustrating, as they all remained skittish whenever I approached and there was no visible indication as to which was the aggressor.
I had five fish left, and it didn’t take long to figure out which one it was. The largest fish, now at 2 ˝”, had established dominance over the rest of the group and forced the remaining four from the cave they had all been sharing. The displaced stormsi scattered to different areas of the tank. The four seemed to have no problems with allowing the others into their territories, while the dominant fish relentlessly attacked any of the others that wandered near its cave. So much for meek.
The deaths stopped as quickly as they had begun, and the fish settled in to an uneasy truce. 50% water changes were performed every week, and the fish began to grow. And grow. And grow. By the end of the fourth month, the largest fish was easily 4″ long. The smaller four were about 3″. The largest one was fast approaching twice the length Baensch had listed. So much for small.
I still found them a bit skittish so I decided to add some dithers. Juvenile Congo tetras fit the bill nicely and kept with the West African theme. The behavior of the stormsi changed dramatically. They almost instantly became more gregarious, and no longer darted for the caves whenever I approached. They began to swim in midwater, and routinely splashed at the surface waiting for food. They began to eat floating foods, and I noticed that they could now hover in midwater without moving their fins, which is something they could not do as juveniles. Why this is, I do not know. The stormsi never bothered the tetras.
The largest fish began to exhibit more color. The head turned deep purple in color. The pectoral fins became burnt orange, as did the ring around the eye. The lips became bright green, with a graceful black arc running from the corner of the mouth to the tip of the operculum. The caudal fin became blue-green. The other four fish began to change from dull gray to cream with dark saddles and vertical stripes. So much for drab.
It became clear that I had one male and four females left from the original nine. I’m now quite certain that the three fish that were killed previously were all males. But there still were no signs of breeding activity. So much for easy-to-breed.
Approximately one month later, while using a gravel vac during the weekly water change, the male and one of the females began to chase each other in circles around the vac tube. Both of their colors had faded to a dull gold, and the only other markings, found on both male and female, were five very faint thin black vertical stripes. This went on for about twenty minutes as I drained and refilled the tank. I sat in front of the tank to see if this was the precursor to spawning, but after another ten minutes, they must have gotten dizzy or tired because they went back to separate caves, where their normal coloration returned.
This became a weekly occurrence at every water change. The large male and one of the females would change colors and dash around the gravel vac as if in anticipation of the fresh water that was soon to be added to the tank. Never did they nip at each other, but just swam in tight circles. Another two months went by as I watched them go through this ritual. Finally at the end of this two-month period, I found a female holding! She had taken up residence behind a piece of driftwood on the opposite side of the tank from the male’s cave. While I was excited that they had finally bred, I was disappointed that I had not been able to witness it.
While I have had some experiences with rift lake mouthbrooding cichlids, this was my first time working with any West African mouthbrooder. As such I had no idea what the normal gestation period would be, nor did I know how many fry to expect. To play it safe, I decided to strip the female at 14 days. It proved to be too early, as the 15 fry were no further along than head-egg-tails. I put the developing fish in a breeding trap suspended in another tank, and returned the female to the main tank.
The following week I watched the male and a second female swim in frenetic circles during the water change. Approximately twenty minutes later I was able to witness the rest of the courtship and breeding. The male would dart in front of the female, spread his fins, and begin his mating dance. For the most part, it was not unlike what I had seen from my rift lake cichlids. The main difference waswell, to best describe it, I’d have to say it was like me dancing. Trying to dance actually. Ladies, I’m sorry for the visuals but it’s the most apt description I know. The male was the clumsiest thing I had ever laid eyes on. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to entice the female or if the submersible heater shorted out in the tank! As none of the other fish showed any signs of stray current, I empathized with him right away.
The two fish would lay side-by-side but facing head-to-tail on the gravel. The female would release one or two eggs, the male would release his milt, and the two fish would spin 180 degrees so the female could pick up the eggs. This went on for 15 minutes, at which time the female picked up 18 eggs and left the spawning site looking for cover from the male. The male followed her for a bit, then went looking for another female to display to.
I let this female carry to term. After 28 days, she released the fry. It appeared that they had been fully formed for some time, so I stripped subsequent females at 21 days from then on in with good success. Broods averaged between 15-20 fry per spawn. The fry are released larger than any rift lake fry I have raised, and readily take to crumbled flakes and pellets. They can easily hit 2″ within four months post-release if given plenty of food and plenty of water changes.
The male regularly spawned with each of the four females. It was not uncommon to see all four of them holding at the same time. He was relentless in his pursuits, and it was clear that the 29 gallon tank was now too small as the male reached 5 ˝” and the females were 3 ˝” long. I found them a good home when I reset the tank foryup, you guessed it – Labidochromis caeruleus!