The cichlid genus Pseudocrenilabrus consists of four scientifically named Dwarf Haplochromis endemic to the African continent. Here they are found in a variety of freshwater habitats (including rivers, sinkholes, lakes and creeks) abounding with natural forms of cover which afford protection against the activities of fishing birds and snakes but, sadly, cannot hold back habitat destruction at the hands of man.
Aquarists in the U.K. are very fortunate, as the four Pseudocrenilabrus species (although often wrongly labelled) are regularly available through our larger aquatic retail outlets. I confess a fondness for P. philander philander – the most easily maintained member of the group.
Hailing from South Africa, this particular fish was known in our hobby for many a year under the common name of Southern Mouthbrooder but this has, slowly, been replaced by the name which is much favoured on the European mainland, of Blue Lipped Cichlid (a trait shared with P. nicholsi).
How did I get bitten by the Southern Mouthbrooder? As males mature their nature changes from ‘boisterous angel’ to more aggressive in character. One particular male was literally a ‘raging bull’. On a couple of occasions his bites to my fingers had left bright pink marks upon the skin. One particular day I was very careless during routine tank maintenance, and he attacked with full vigour, and whatever the dentition of a Dwarf Haplochromis is supposed to be, he almost managed to break my skin leaving a mark that took a considerable time to fade. This aquarist learned another useful lesson.
Detailed scientific study of the natural habitat of the Southern Mouthbrooder revealed that males rule over territories which can measure as much as 90cm square. Females will only intrude into this space in order to forage for natural food items and court a potential mate. Don’t panic, as a fish room aquarium of 75x30x30cm will house a group of sub-adults consisting of one male with three to four females. Fine gravel or sand is used as a substrate, the aquarium should be well planted, pH7 and have a temperature of 23 C.
My first pair of Southern Mouthbrooders came to me courtesy of my friend Mr. Kevin Webb (a well-known aquatic photographer in the U.K.) and these fish were F1 and of German origin. Kevin told me to expect these fish to spawn within six weeks and that the breeding procedure was so secretive that I would not witness it. As all aquarists know, fish seldom stick to what is expected, and the pair had spawned within six days of arrival and I witnessed the whole procedure from start to finish.
A gaining of maturity is often signalled by dramatic changes in colour to the body of the male. Up to this point both sexes have been orange-yellow in body colour (with males showing patches of blue and red), but suddenly males literally blossom, with neon blue, deep orange and turquoise colours coming to the fore.
When compared to the courting procedure of Kribensis, that of the Southern Mouthbrooder is much less elaborate and ‘showy,’ allowing a pair to reach the end product of reproducing much more quickly. Not all reproduction attempts will end in success though and the much-respected Yorkshire aquarist Mr. Gerry Hawksby noted several young females who, on their first attempts at motherhood, carried gravel rather than eggs in their mouths.
At one point so many philander spawnings were taking place in my tanks that track of the actual number was lost. Whatever the pairing, one thing remained constant in that spawning always took place atop flat pieces of coal onto which mature females release around 40 large yellow eggs. The male then releases his milt, indicating this action by showing a dark orange patch on his anal fin, and his mate responds by taking this milt into her mouth thus fertilising the eggs held within.
With her mouth pouch bulging with eggs the mother-to-be takes on the appearance of a mutated frog. She is gently ushered into a plastic bowl and moved to a separate aquarium. After 8 days the female takes on a dark grey appearance to her body and face and this signals a successful hatching of eggs. After 11 days the fry will have used up their yolk sacs so I add small amounts of microworm, and continue to do so until the first fry are released, which the female takes into her mouth for the fry to consume.
On or around day 14 the female releases her fry and for a further two days they move freely in and out of the safety zone offered by their mother’s mouth pouch. (Gerry noted that any fry which happen to die at this time continue to be carried by their mother). Nature now tells their mother to weed her brood of any weaklings, so she begins to carry out a form of infanticide and there are times when she forgets to stop, thus wiping out a whole brood.
Fortunately Kevin had heard, through the aquatic grapevine, about the above activity before either Kevin himself, Gerry or I had bred philanders for the first time. So we were ready to take action, and thus on day 16, and as early as is possible, we use one of a variety of methods which has the result of dividing mother from as many of her fry as is possible, and into a separate aquarium she goes.
The tiny fry resemble small slivers of glass, have jet black eyes and large heads. They will take microworms, brineshrimps and powdered food for the first fortnight before moving onto crushed flake food.
By now their mother is ready to be re-united with her mate, but only do this if you have the room for more fry, because you can take my word for the fact that she will be carrying eggs again within a few hours of such a reconciliation.