Breeding Apistogrammas a complete guide

Female Apistogramma hongsloi with 5-day-old fry

Breeding Apistogrammas is fun and interesting. Nothing compares to the sight of a bright yellow and black female leading a school of tiny fry around an aquarium. Watching her guard the school while her mate guards a larger territory is fascinating and watching the fry respond to cues from the mother must be observed to fully appreciate. Unfortunately, breeding Apistogrammas and other dwarf cichlids usually takes more than just having a pair of fish. This article is a comprehensive guide to breeding Apistogramma. For detailed information on all aspects of aquarium care other than breeding please read my Guide to Apistogramma Aquarium Care. For information on breeding just keep reading

Note: This is a rather long article so use the Table of Contents to jump ahead to any section.

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Introduction

This article is about breeding Apistogramma species but much of the information applies to other types of dwarf cichlids. Since this article is about breeding, I’m going to assume you are already an experienced aquarist and I’m not going to spend much time on many basic topics. However, you’ll find complete information about all aspects of keeping and breeding dwarf cichlids throughout this site. Each genus page has additional information about care and breeding and individual species pages have still more info. For a full discussion of Apistogramma topics other than breeding read these “essential articles”

Essential Articles About Apistogrammas
The Genus Apistogramma
Apistogramma Aquarium Care
Breeding Apistogrammas
Understanding Apistogramma Classification and Identification
Live Plants in the Apistogramma Aquarium
How and Where to Buy Apistogrammas and Other Dwarf Cichlids

Before you read further, I want to be clear that everything here is my opinion. This is not intended to be a step-by-step guide. Instead, it’s a discussion of most of the factors that need to be considered for successful breeding. In most places, I’ll tell you how I do things but I’m not saying it’s how you should do it. There are a lot of different methods for achieving success and much of what I do may be quite different from what someone else will tell you. The best teachers are time and experience so don’t obsess over minor details. Instead, just get some fish, give them the best home you can, observe them, and learn from them.

Setting up a breeding tank

Selecting an aquarium

The best tanks for Apistogramma are generally low with a large floor area. For example, a standard 20-gallon high is 24″x12″x16″ and has 288 sq inches of floor space while a 20-gallon long is 30″x12″x12″ and has 360 sq inches of floor space. Both tanks hold the same amount of water but the 20-long has 25% more floor space. Since Apistos live and breed near the bottom, the 20-long is obviously a better choice. Both 20-gallon long and 30-gallon breeder tanks are perfect but, it’s possible to use smaller tanks if managed properly. 24″ tanks like a 20-high or 15-gallon can be aquascaped to house most breeding pairs. 20″ (10-gallon) and smaller tanks are usually only successful for those with significant Apisto-keeping experience.

If you are planning a tank that will house other fish besides the Apistogramma you’ll want to select a deeper tank if possible. A shallow tank may keep the companion fish too close to the cichlids resulting in constant chasing.

Designing a proper habitat

Apistogramma like to establish territories centered on open areas that are ringed by alcoves and habitat breaks that create smaller areas. Depending on the size of your tank, you can work around a large central open area or break the floor space into a single offset clearing or multiple clearings. Many hobbyists question why I recommend breaking up the large open area fearing the Apistos will not be as observable. On the contrary, I think you actually see the fish more as they feel comfortable being right in front of the glass in their smaller clearing. It’s often difficult to breed Apistos in a tank that is all open. If you have peaceful fish it can work but if either fish turns aggressive there is no place for the bullied fish to run to and hide.

In the wild, it’s dangerous being a lone fish in the open. Many predators come from above and Apistos don’t like to sit where they are exposed. Instead, they patrol the perimeter of the open area where they can quickly dart out of the open and into cover. Females will claim breeding areas along this perimeter where they stake out smaller territories. I always make sure to include a clearing and places of cover in my breeding tanks. The size of the clearing can vary considerably and there are a lot of possible tank layouts that can be considered. To a big extent, your layout will be influenced by the materials you have available. If you have tons of plants they provide different options than if you are depending mostly on hardscape.

Normally you can design a layout that has a significant-sized main clearing, several areas of dense cover, and one or more small minor clearings that are out of sight from the main clearing. Typically, the male can be counted on to claim the main open area, which will normally keep him in front of the glass for better viewing. Place a couple of caves on the edges of the clearing as potential breeding sites. The female will mostly ignore the caves except when tending to a spawn.

This is an example of one of my Apistogramma tanks that utilizes plants, rocks, and driftwood. While this is a 4ft tank that I used for keeping a species group, This type of layout design can be easily adapted to a smaller tank. this is a larger tank than I would typically use for a breeding pair. The central open area was ruled by the dominant male while a number of females found individual territories and constantly squabbled about their boundaries. Note the light is quite bright at the surface but at the bottom, the lighting is rather dim. The thicket of tall plants (watersprite) on the left provided cover for subdominant males, juveniles, and extra females. On the far right I have created a totally secluded area with a breeding cave. It’s hard to see in this photo but there is a large vertical rock dividing this area from the rest of the tank and the top of the rock is a fence of Java fern. The photo below is a close-up of that part of the tank.
This photo shows the vertical rock that divides the separated area on the right from the rest of the tank. The rock forms a sight barrier and is of no interest to the dominant male living on the left. The Java fern growing from the top of the rock acts like a fence. Although it was easy for fish to swim into this area, the dominant male rarely, if ever, did so as he never considered it to be his territory, and getting in required swimming through the plants near the surface of the tank and he preferred to stay down and rule the bottom.

Substrate

Once you have a design in mind, it’s time to begin constructing the tank and it all starts with the substrate. Most substrates will work but fine-grained sand is the best in my opinion. Dwarf cichlids are “earth-eaters” who spend a lot of time picking up mouthfuls of sand that they sift out through their gills, presumably sifting out tiny food items. Most native habitats include soft bottoms and it’s best to provide this in a breeding tank. The female will often move large amounts of sand out of her selected breeding site to create a pile that helps block the cave entrance. Both sexes will spend hours each day sifting through the sand.

Bare bottom tanks can work but I usually avoid them for my breeding tanks. While they are easy to clean. there is no sand for the adults to sift and no substrate for rooted plants. Plants in containers are great additions to bare-bottom tanks and a thick layer of leaves will help to reduce the sterile look and will provide a complex habitat. I have used bare-bottom tanks for rearing but I’ve found the fish grow better when in a planted tank.

Gravel can be used effectively in most Apistogramma breeding tanks. I’ve used a lot of gravel of different sizes and usually have been successful. I’ve preferred smaller sizes that are small enough for a fish to pick them up in their mouth to move. I’ve had females dig a couple of inches deep into the gravel while excavating a breeding site. Larger-sized gravel and small pebbles can be used but be careful. The larger the pieces the larger the gaps between them and, if the spaces become too large, larval fry can fall into the crevices where they perish. I’ve used gravel for many years and still do in some of my rearing tanks but I almost exclusively use sand in my breeding tanks.

Live Plants

Once you have a substrate you need the materials for creating your layout and I believe there is nothing better than live plants. They come in different shapes and sizes and can be used to create a lot of complexity in the tank. Tall plants can be used to create screened-off areas that are out of sight from the main clearing. while lower plants can make great hiding and refuge areas. Besides providing structure for aquascaping, live plants help to filter the water, and their leaf and root surfaces are usually colonized by beneficial bacteria and other micro-organisms that provide first foods for fry.

Floating plants are useful for providing overhead security to the fish and absorbing a lot of the light entering the tank. Most floating plants have extensive root systems which can provide cover and extensive surface area for the microbial film. For information about recommended plants and how to care for them visit the Guide to Live Plants in Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums.

Hardscape

Hardscape refers to the physical items we place in our tanks to decorate and design habitats. In the Apistogramma breeding tank hardscape is important to add complexity to the tank and to help define various areas. Some of the most common hardscape materials include:

Rocks

Rocks can be used in several ways. A single large rock that is tall enough can make a great divider for creating separate areas in the tank. Similarly, a pile of several rocks can be used in the same way. Rock piles can also be designed to include tight passages through nooks and crannies where a fish can find shelter. Properly piled, the rocks can be arranged to create spawning caves. A big drawback to using rock piles is that you often have to tear down the entire tank to net fish that hide in the pile.

This tank uses live plants and rock piles to create a complex habitat for a group of Apistogrammas. Note how dark it gets under the shelter of the plants on the left.

You should avoid using rocks that will change your water chemistry by making it harder and raising the pH. Avoid any rocks promoted especially for African cichlids, Central American cichlids, or marine use. If you are buying, you want to get rocks that are “inert” and will not change the water If you are collecting your own rocks make sure they come from unpolluted waters. I usually wash the rocks I collect but others use bleach. For more information read this outside article Which Types of Rock are Safe to Add to My Aquarium?

Driftwood

I have driftwood in many of my tanks and always enjoy the effects I can create. However, I often regret using it when I try to net fish. There are many different ways to use driftwood. Blocky pieces can be used similarly to rocks and make great dividers for creating areas. Some blocky pieces can be used to make spawning locations and plants like Java fern can be artificially attached until the roots grow into the driftwood. Branchy pieces can be very useful for breaking up the tank. How you will use them depends on what shape of branch you have. Branches can be major obstacles to netting fish.

A big problem with most driftwood is that it floats so you have to account for this. I usually use a couple of large heavy rocks to hold down the driftwood. Once the wood has been submerged long enough, it will become waterlogged and will sink naturally. How long this takes depends on the type of wood and how thick the piece is. Some branchy pieces will soak through in weeks to months while some blocky pieces can take 6 months or longer.

Plastic plants

While I don’t use them, I think that plastic plants have a useful purpose for many hobbyists. Unless you are already running several planted tanks, it’s hard to start with the dense plantings that I recommend. Most people will need to have some sort of additional material to create complexity and provide hiding places. Thus, I can easily understand using plastic plants to create habitat complexity. A dense cluster of several clumps of plants might be needed to provide escape cover until the natural plants grow out or a strong pair bond is created and the escape cover is no longer needed. Plastic plants will probably be more susceptible to algae growth than live plants.

Spawning mops

This might sound strange but I don’t hesitate to use spawning mops to add temporary dense cover in my breeding tanks. A few floating and sinking mops will create shelter areas very quickly. I’m the first to admit they are not attractive but my breeding tanks aren’t in public view so I’m more concerned about function than appearance. Functional is a great word to describe breeding mops as they can be placed where needed, are easy to remove and wash clean, and can be constructed to any length or density. Plus, they’re cheap and Spawning mops are easy to make all you need is some yarn.

Leaves

Dry leaves can be an important component of a breeding tank setup. Not only will they help provide habitat complexity, but they will also release tannins and humic compounds into the water. These tannins will often turn the water a darker color, even as darkly colored as tea. However, with regular water changes the color disappears unless new leaves are added. Oak leaves are probably the best option and most other tree leaves should probably be avoided unless you know they won’t have a negative impact on your water. Here is an outside article about using leaves in your aquarium.

I use oak leaves that I collect myself after they have fallen in Autumn. There are many species of oak that thrive in all parts of the country. However, make sure you are only using leaves from trees that have never been sprayed with pesticides. If you are in doubt, organic oak leaves and Indian almond leaves can be purchased for a reasonable price.

Decorations

Some hobbyists may want to set up a tank that relies on decorations to some degree. In truth, there is no reason why you can’t use aquarium decorations to provide complexity to your tank’s layout. Although I’ve never done it, I’m pretty sure you can create a great breeding tank layout using only plastic plants and decorations. I’m sure there are decorations that will work as spawning caves as well. Just because I use lots of live plants doesn’t mean you need to. Instead, focus on creating a habitat that provides shelter and security so the fish feel at ease.

Caves

Apistogramma species are typically cave spawners, preferring enclosed hidden places. When people discuss keeping Apistos, the need for caves is always emphasized which may lead some to believe that the fish live in the caves. In fact, outside of spawning, Apistos rarely enter caves in the course of their daily activities. However, during times of duress, caves are often sought for shelter.

This cave was formed by leaning two rocks against each other with a back end that is sealed off. Enlarge the photo to see the female with a baby under her.

The thing about caves is they often matter more to the fishkeeper than they do to the fish. Apistos will accept almost any type of cave and it doesn’t matter what it’s made of. Coconut shells, Terra cotta pots, decorative breeding caves, driftwood with a hollowed-out section, or rocks stacked to form a cave are all readily accepted. So are much less natural things like sections of PVC pipe, 35 mm film canisters, pill bottles, and other small containers. Although I’ve used all sorts of caves over the years, I mostly use small flower pots that I cut in half or break into pieces. When I use a half pot I usually use a stone to block at least half of the opening. This provides a more secure cave and the female can fill the small opening with sand if she chooses.

You can usually place spawning caves where they are easy to view and appropriate for the female. If you have more than a pair in the tank it’s important to face the opening of the cave away from any sight lines that can show other fish. With a trio, place caves on each end of the clearing area with their entrances facing away from each other and try to create a secluded clearing around the cave.

A piece of broken terracotta flower pot is used as a spawning cave in this A. cacatuoides breeding tank. Note that the cave is placed all the way against the side glass allowing me to create a small private territory for the female.

No matter how many or what type of cave you provide, there will always be fish that just don’t like your offerings and will spawn where they want to. Often this will be in a secluded spot in dense cover at the back of the tank. It’s not unusual to worry that you may have lost your female if she has set up a secluded nest and cares for the fry until free swimming. This can take 10 days and when you haven’t seen a fish for that long it’s easy to get worried. If this happens to you, just wait. If the fish is actually missing there is nothing you can do and you don’t want to disturb a brooding female as you tear apart the tank looking for her. I’d wait 2 weeks or longer before I’d go looking.

Water conditions

To generalize, most wild Apistogrammas come from waters that are soft to extremely soft (0dGH – 5dGH), and slightly to extremely acidic (pH 3.5 – 6.5) while a few species come from water of moderate hardness and pH. Many species will fail to produce viable spawns unless the water meets their specific demands so you have to research the species you are keeping to determine if you need to provide unusual water conditions. Many blackwater species are adapted to live in very soft acidic water and may require the same in the aquarium. Some of these species can be very challenging to breed and are probably best avoided by inexperienced hobbyists.

Providing the desired water can be a problem as most of us aren’t lucky enough to have soft tap water. This leaves us with the option of trying to change the water values or keeping species that can breed in our tap water. I generally believe it’s far better to keep fish that will thrive in your source water. While there are many products that will lower the pH, the carbonate hardness in the water will gradually neutralize the additive and the pH will return to its starting point. Trying to use chemicals to maintain a lower pH in harder water is an impossible task and is not healthy for the fish who have to experience frequent pH swings.

It’s possible to very slightly soften and acidify your water by filtering through peat moss, alder cones, oak leaves, or other materials that add tannins to the water. While this can provide minor water chemistry changes, the greatest benefits probably come from the introduction of the humic compounds. This is especially beneficial for blackwater species and peat filters can help to trigger spawning and can improve egg viability.

Reverse osmosis (RO) filtration

In my opinion, the best way to handle hard water is to purchase a reverse osmosis (RO) water filter which will remove almost all of the hardness from the water. When combined with carbon filtration they produce great water. Of course, they come at a cost, both financial and the physical space they need. Fortunately, the financial cost has dropped significantly and bare-bones units can be found for well less than $100. RO filters produce water rather slowly with discharge ranging between a slow stream and a slow drip depending on size. Units are rated by their maximum daily output and the larger the filter the faster the flow. Water pressure has a significant impact on flow rate and is especially noticeable when supplied by a low-pressure well. You can get RO filters that have a discharge hose or you can get units that mount under the sink and include a storage tank and a tap for the sink.

To work properly, RO filters must produce waste water that carries away the minerals removed from the filtered water. Depending on the system you may have 2-3 gallons (or even more) of waste produced for every gallon of RO. I run my waste water out of my house and use it as drip irrigation for trees and flowers in my yard. You can use it in many other ways or else run it down the drain. While we call this waste water, there is actually nothing wrong with it in any way. It just contains all of the minerals that have been removed from the RO water.

I use a system without a built-in storage tank which just runs water out of its outlet and I attach an airline hose to the output and run water through the hose directly to an aquarium. I siphon out the amount of water I want to change and then allow the RO output to run directly into the tank. I know how long it takes for my RO to run a gallon so I know how long any given water change will take. I just let it run until the tank is full then move it to another tank or turn the RO off. A major drawback to this method comes if you forget to monitor the RO and continue to run water that spills over the tank (I’ve had 12-hour overflows!). So if you chose this method I recommend using a timer.

Many hobbyists use a storage reservoir for their RO water. A 30-gallon garbage can works well as do spare aquariums, Rubbermaid totes, or other containers. The RO fills the container and the water is stored until needed. With this method, you have to move the water from the reservoir to the tank which can be difficult. This is a great method if you want to treat your RO water before using it. You can add peat filtration to the reservoir and have conditioned water for your tanks. This is also the best method if you are using pH buffers, RO minerals, or other supplements.

Personally, I don’t use any sort of water treatments or supplements. I’ve heard all the discussions about why it’s important to add minerals to RO water but, in my experience, they are not needed. If I have a species that prefers some hardness in the water I mix tap water with RO to achieve the desired parameters. I’ve never found value in pH buffers or other additives. I’m not speaking against them just saying I don’t use them.

Lighting

Apistogrammas will almost always feel more secure and comfortable if they are kept in low light. Many species come from dense rainforest areas where sunlight doesn’t reach the ground and it never gets bright. Additionally, many waters are overgrown with terrestrial vegetation and others are dark with tannins. This results in dim to dark lighting conditions in the wild. You can control the light level in your tank by reducing the wattage of the lights you use. However, if you are using live plants you will need adequate light for healthy plant growth. That is my situation and I use fairly bright lights combined with floating and rooted plants to darken the tank. Some of my breeding tanks are so dark that a flashlight is needed to see details when the lights are on full.

Dim tanks are not required but they are what I use. However, I’ve spawned many species in brightly lit tanks so don’t get too worried about your lighting. Some species are actually captured in ponds or vegetation-free streams so they are adapted to full sun.

There is much more information about lighting and all other husbandry topics in the essential article Aquarium Care of Apistogramma and Other Dwarf Cichlids.

Filtration

I exclusively use sponge filters in my breeding tanks. They provide slight water movement without strong currents and are effective filters. As they get “seasoned” they become colonized by bacteria and other microscopic materials that provide excellent first food for new fry. At the same time, the water flow through them is so gentle that there is no chance of a tiny fry getting sucked into the filter. The only disadvantage they have is that since they don’t create much current, they don’t circulate the water very well, and in a cool room the aquarium will end up with cool water areas where the heated water doesn’t circulate.

I don’t use power filters in breeding tanks and don’t recommend them. I don’t like having the adults deal with the current and I don’t want to risk losing fry into the filter. Also, with just a pair in a tank, there’s not much waste being generated so a power filter is filtration overkill. On the plus side, a power filter thoroughly mixes the water to eliminate temperature differences.

Undergravel filters are not too popular these days but there are still many in use and they are effective filters. I don’t recommend them for Apistos unless you use a deep gravel bed of at least 2 inches. The problem is that an ambitious female can dig down to the filter plate where the fry can get pulled right through. Many years ago I did a complete overhaul of a tank with an undergravel filter and was shocked to find a young adult Apisto that had apparently survived from larval fry living under the filter plate.

Using no filter is actually a very viable choice. With such a light fish load in the tank, it really doesn’t need filtering. I often run a tank with just an air hose slowly bubbling to provide minimal water circulation. You probably wouldn’t need anything if you want to avoid an air pump. In a cool or cold room, you will likely have significant temperature differences at various places in the tank with it being warm near the heater and gradually cooling as you move away.

Food and feeding

The foods and feeding for breeding are no different than those for general aquarium care and are addressed in detail in Apistogramma Aquarium Care. However, live foods become more important for conditioning the pair. Live food is not mandatory. You can certainly breed most Apistos on a diet of frozen and prepared food or even only prepared food. However, fish that are fed live food will usually produce more eggs, more frequently, and will be more inclined to spawn.

Be careful not to overfeed your breeding tank. The few fish you house actually eat very little by volume and it’s easy to feed too much. Since I recommend you avoid most scavengers in a breeding tank, you need to be especially aware of excess food. You should never be able to see any fungused food in the tank. I try to keep ramshorn snails in my breeding tanks as I’ve found that they ignore eggs and larval fry while helping to clean up any excess food.

Temperature control

Temperature is important in an Apistogramma breeding tank. Many species are notorious for spawns that turn out to be mostly male or mostly female. Sometimes a spawn will be 100% of one sex. For many years it was believed that the sex ratio was influenced by the pH of the water and many suggestions for modifying pH to adjust sex ratios were proffered. However, while pH may have a role, it now seems that temperature is the most significant determining factor.

In his book Cichlid Atlas 1, Dr. Uwe Römer reports on a large body of lab and field studies he conducted looking at various aspects of Apistogramma development. Among his findings was that growth is best at 78° – 80°F and poorest above 84°F and below 70°F. Additionally, he reports that female A. cacatuoides reach maturity (first spawn) between 140 – 350 days and matured fastest at 78°F – 79°F, and maturation rates were progressively slower moving warmer, or especially cooler from this temperature range. Based on these and other study observations, it seems the best temperature for general maintenance is 77° – 80°F.

Dr. Römer also conducted significant breeding studies to determine the role of temperature on sex determination. In his work, he demonstrated that for 33 species the correlation between sex and temperature could be statistically proven. Depending on the species, the temperature that will yield a balanced sex ratio should be about 78°F. While pH can play a determining role in some species, most hobbyists find that keeping the tank at 78°F will produce acceptable sex ratios.

Since temperature plays a significant role in growth, sexual maturity, sex ratios, and other factors, it’s important to have a dependable heater in your tank. Also, make a habit of checking the temperature with a handheld thermometer. I’ve seen far too many heaters fail to just assume the best. Sometimes they fail by staying on for constant heating that can raise the temperature enough to kill fish. I use the back of my hand to check each tank daily to make sure it isn’t getting too warm. I also don’t use oversized heaters which reduces the risk.

Stocking the aquarium

Selecting an Apistogramma species

If you spend much time looking at Apistogramma photos online you might get the impression the fish you are seeing are available to purchase. Many hobbyists fall for a photo and want that fish. Unfortunately, that’s often impossible. If the fish you pick are one of the more common species then there is usually no problem although you might not find a specific color variety. However, for some of the more exotic species, many are never imported to the USA and all we will ever see is photos. There are a lot of reasons for this including

  • Some species are only known from photos taken on private collecting trips.
  • Many species are from geographic locations where there is no tropical fish trade.
    • They may come from places so remote that transport to shipping facilities is impossible.
    • Their population might be so small that collecting enough for export is impractical.
    • They may come from places where the government bans ornamental fish trade.
    • They may come from regions that are not safe to visit.

Even fish that are available may look significantly different than those in published photos. Some reasons for this include:

  • Whether they are wild or tank raised, the most impressive specimens are selected for publication.
  • Within every wild population there is tremendous variability in coloration and only the most colorful are selected for photos While the species may be available, the color form in the photo may be far different.
  • Most North American hobbyists will not pay premium prices for rare species. Consequently, the rarest and most colorful may be sent to countries that will pay higher prices.
  • Age and environment play a huge role in how a fish looks. Your fish might just need time to develop.

None of this should discourage you from getting the best fish you can. Just don’t expect to find a photo on the web and then find a fish exactly like it. Although it might not look exactly the same, I’ll bet any Apisto you get will be more beautiful and interesting than you expect.

Wild or tank raised?

Often you will have an opportunity to acquire Apistos from a variety of origins. Wild fish are captured and exported in significant numbers and most of the specialty fish sellers will offer a variety of wild fish. Tank-raised fish come from several sources, including individual hobbyists, small hatchery operations, and commercial fish farms.

Wild Apistogramma

There are a lot of reasons to choose wild fish but there are also reasons why they may not be the best choice.

  • Wild fish are generally much less tolerant of water conditions and may demand extreme values. They’ve never been exposed to conditions other than their native waters so you need to be prepared to match those conditions if necessary.
  • While collectors, exporters, distributors, and specialty sellers all do their best, sometimes wild fish are misidentified.
  • Wild Apistos can arrive at any size or condition. The fish are captured in the wild and whatever the collector gets is what is exported. If they are small, they will not be grown to a larger size for export. It’s not uncommon for wild fish to take weeks or months to show sexual characteristics making it impossible to guarantee a male/female pair.
  • Most wild Apistos are young fish, less than a year old. They rarely grow old in the wild. Wild fish will almost never be fully grown when you get them.
  • Wild fish may be much harder to feed. It can take a long time to get some species to feed on commercially prepared foods.
  • Wild fish often have intense colors. While some species have been crossbred in aquariums to become very colorful (see below), often the wild Apistogrammas are much more colorful than their offspring.
  • In my opinion, wild Apistos often have a stronger brood care instinct than tank-raised fish. I’ve found many tank-raised females to be lazy mothers while wild-caught fish generally have strong parenting instincts.
  • Wild fish may be more aggressive than tank raised. I’ve had better luck managing aggression with groups of tank-raised fish.
  • Wild Apistogramma are hardy. While I believe that all Apistos are tough fish, I’ve found wild fish to be especially hardy. They’re generally resistant to disease and rarely harbor parasites. They also tolerate shipping very well and don’t suffer from transport.
    • Although I find them to be disease-free, you should always plan on quarantining any new addition to your aquarium – cichlid or tankmate.
  • Wild fish are often rare. Many Apistogramma species are only occasionally collected and any new discoveries are only available as wild fish. There are hundreds of species and varieties that are only available as wild.
  • What wild species are available is based entirely on what the exporters are offering. Sometimes these are familiar species and sometimes rare but the assortment is always changing. The annual high-water and low-water seasons also have a big impact on the availability of wild fish. Apistogrammas are not collected at all during the rainy flood season.

Tank raised Apistogramma

Tank-raised fish are often easier to raise as they have only known life in an aquarium. They are usually more tolerant of water conditions and normally are less selective about food. For the better-known species, tank-raised fish are typically available year-round and most pet stores can special order at least some species.

Among the tank-raised Apistos, there are a number of species that have been selectively bred to produce different color strains that breed true. There are multiple color varieties of A. agassizii, A. cacatuoides, A. macmasteri, and others that are readily available. Most hobbyists are delighted by the variety of colorful forms but others only accept wild forms. People can be very passionate about this but my opinion is that you should keep the fish that please you. Decide what you like and that’s all that counts. As long as you are not misrepresenting the fish you have don’t ever let anyone tell you that your fish are “wrong”.

Broadly speaking, there are three main sources of tank-raised Apistogramma.

Hobbyist breeders

Getting your fish from a private breeder is a great way to get fish. Hobbyists are passionate about their fish so you know that they are well cared for. When you purchase from a hobbyist you can find out what kind of food, water, etc. the fish are accustomed to and can get first-hand advice about the fish. An often overlooked aspect is the personal connection that you make with another Apisto aficionado.

While buying directly from a hobbyist might seem perfect, there are a few things to consider. Always make sure the fish are from good stock. Most hobbyists passionately love their individual fish even if it may not be genetically the best for breeding so make sure the fish come from good stock. Another difficulty is finding a hobbyist breeder. If you are in an urban area there may be a fish club where you can make contact with breeders. A “fish wanted” post on local social media sites might find a connection. National sites can help you find hobbyist breeders but you will likely have to ship the fish.

If you find them locally, you need to think ahead about what you will do with your excess fish in the future. This article is about breeding so I assume that’s your goal. If there is already a local breeder of a given species, is there enough demand for your future production? Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to saturate a market so give serious consideration to how you will dispose of your excess fish in the future.

Fishroom breeder

I consider a fishroom breeder to be a hobbyist who operates a large fishroom and produces a number of different tank-raised species. Fishroom breeders range in size significantly and may offer a few or many species. Most fishroom breeders offer some of the same attractions as hobby breeders. They have a genuine love for the fish that has grown into a major commitment. They know their fish and will usually give you honest information. They are usually accurate with their identifications and usually take pride in producing quality fish.

Unfortunately, fishroom breeders are where I see a lot of turnover in the hobby. It’s really hard for a hobbyist to run this type of operation and many are only around for a few years. During those years they are one of the best sources for stock but it’s a lot of work and expense to operate a fishroom dedicated to dwarf cichlids and most don’t sustain for the long term. Feeding and daily maintenance alone take hours each day and marketing and selling fish is a lot of work. Netting, bagging, boxing, addressing, and shipping all take time and it always seems like you are behind. Of course, lost shipments, DOAs, and a host of other issues add more stress to what should be a relaxing hobby. It’s tempting to think you could make a business out of a hobby and that usually fails. It takes at least 6 months to grow Apistos to saleable size and dozens of tanks are needed to raise multiple species which doesn’t offer a profitable effort. If you do the math, you’ll quickly discover that making a living doing this is impossible. I know from personal experience.

I was a fishroom breeder for years, generally breeding 10 – 15 species at any given time and I found it to be a fun hobby but not a way to make a profit. I got into it through gradual hobby creep where I kept adding tanks and fish and needed an outlet for my surplus. I began publishing my fish list and selling direct to hobbyists. I quickly realized that shipping fish to individual hobbyists was not what I enjoyed. It took too much time from my life with full-time work and two young children. However, I relished breeding and raising fish. My solution was to develop relationships with a couple of large specialty fish stores that purchased my fish in bulk. I’d ship them a few hundred at a time which wouldn’t take me much more time than doing a couple of individual shipments. Of course, I didn’t make much money selling wholesale but it gave me a productive outlet for thousands of fish and helped to cover the cost of my hobby.

I’ll finish by saying that most fishroom breeders are dedicated advanced hobbyists that are underappreciated in the hobby. They often keep species available that others don’t and are a great source for aquarium stock.

Commercial fish farms

Commercial fish farms produce most of the captive-bred Apistogrammas that are sold worldwide. The largest farms are outdoor facilities in Asia where common species are produced by the thousand. These fish are the most common Apistogrammas sold in many pet stores in the USA. If they have them, the Apistos at chain stores are almost always farmed. I’ve seen a huge variation in the condition of Asian-farmed fish. Some look great and I wouldn’t hesitate to own them while others show mild to severe signs of overbreeding (bent spine, deformed scales, etc.). Be very careful to examine any pet store Apistos.

Besides the Asian fish farms, there are large commercial fish breeding operations in Eastern Europe that produce high-quality tank-raised species. They will often have 30 or more species available for export and they are usually full or nearly full-grown adults. Many of the specialty fish sellers regularly import these fish and they are generally a good choice. Some of these species are selectively bred for color and a number of color varieties originated in these hatcheries. Consequently, some species of these European imports are slightly to significantly different in appearance from their wild progenitors.

For information about where to find Apistos for sale read How and Where to Buy Apistogramma and Other Dwarf Cichlids

Planning for your fish

Once you’ve identified the species and source of your fish it’s time to plan for the breeding stock you will need. At this point, you need to know exactly what kind of breeding tank you are setting up. Depending on the tank size, aquascaping, and species selected you may be able to choose between keeping a single pair or having some sort of group.

Pairs

An aquarium with a single pair of fish is probably the most popular stocking for spawning Apistogramma. While the males of some species can be polygamous and mate with multiple females, all species are comfortable when kept as a single pair. With a pair, you only have to manage aggression between a single male and female. This makes it much easier to manipulate if necessary. Some species will only spawn as pairs and form lasting pair bonds. These species will always do best if kept as a pair.

Experienced Apisto breeders can often keep spawning pairs in rather small aquaria. However, most hobbyists should use a tank that is at least 24 inches in length (15-gallon or 20-gal high) but it’s better if you use a 30-inch tank (20-gal long).

Pairs can be kept alone in the spawning tank or you can add a few properly selected tankmates. However, if breeding is your goal, you cannot use a fully stocked community tank and expect success. Pencilfish and Otocinclus catfish are usually fine.

Trios

Keeping Apistogramma trios works well for many hobbyists. A trio is three fish one male and two females. The advantage in using a trio primarily comes from watching the interactions between the three. It’s not unusual to have both females spawn within a short period of time and it’s possible to end up with both females raising fry at the same time. A reverse trio is two males and one female and I don’t recommend this combination in a breeding tank.

The aquascaping of the breeding tank is critical to success with a trio. It’s easy for an intended trio to end up as a pair that constantly harasses the extra female. This usually happens in a tank without enough cover and complex habitat. To succeed with a trio you must provide spawning sites on opposite ends of the tank that allow each female to claim a territory. It’s best if each territory is out of sight from the other. Brooding females know that other females are around but if they don’t see them they won’t go looking. However, females that are not tending eggs or fry will often skirmish in the central area of the tank and tend to wander more than brooding fish.

When you are using a trio or any other type of multiple-fish breeding combination you should always introduce the fish all at the same time. If you want to introduce a second female to a mated pair it can be a rough transition. Both members of the pair will consider the tank to be their territory and any new addition is perceived as an invader to be chased away. Since fish can’t flee in an aquarium like they can in the wild, introducing a female on top of a pair can lead to constant aggression and ultimately death. The best way to handle this type of situation is to make sure there are multiple thick areas of cover where the new female can cower out of sight. If she can find a place to hide where she is not easily spotted chances are eventually you can reach a new balance. However, it may take months of hiding. Generally, the dynamic only changes when the new female spawns with the male. Once she has spawned, the power dynamic changes as she guards her eggs. Often this results in a trio that can live together.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to keep a trio in a tank smaller than 30″ in length and longer tanks are better. The same considerations for tankmates with pairs apply here.

Harems

A harem is a step up from a trio. Instead of a male and two females, a harem consists of a male and three or more females. Strictly speaking, any group with a single male and more than one female is a harem but since trios are popular I’ve separated them this way. Harems are based on observations both in the wild and in captivity that show males of some species setting up a large territory with a number of females occupying smaller territories. Under the right conditions, a single male can serve a half-dozen or more females.

Some species are more likely to form harems than others. Apistogramma cacatuoides is one of the best-known harem spawners. Generally speaking, the greater the difference in the appearance of males and females, the more likely they are to form harems. The more that males and females appear similar, the more likely they are to prefer spawning in pairs.

In a large aquarium, you can easily see a harem at work. However, it needs to be a large enough tank for the male to have a very large master territory with plenty of alcoves with spawning caves for females to establish their own territories. In a successful harem tank, you will often find fry of various ages being ignored by the other residents. A 48-inch tank (55-gallon) may have enough floor space for a small harem but longer tanks are much better.

Much of the observation of harem behavior comes from aquarium observations where several studies have been conducted. I believe that it’s really unknown how common harems are in wild fish. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s rather common but there is not a lot of field observation available and the only records of field observation I’ve seen are from very low water times of the year. I don’t believe that anyone knows what their behavior is when the forest is flooded and their territories go from a few square yards to hundreds of square miles.

Groups

Very few hobbyists are successful in keeping breeding groups of Apistos that contain multiple males and females. However, in an aquarium with adequate floor space, it’s possible to have success. The key is to effectively turn the aquarium into several different spaces by using plants and hardscape to essentially build walls between sections of the tank. If you can provide multiple areas of about 2 sq. ft. you may be able to achieve a compatible balance with multiple breeding males. I’ve done this a number of times and it can create a fascinating display as the males spar over the boundary lines of their territories. They will often “fight” for hours while never doing more than display to each other.

Group tanks are best if they are allowed to develop naturally. If your objective is to raise the highest number of fry you should probably keep your Apistos in pairs while groups are the least effective for harvesting fry and juveniles. However, a well-functioning group tank is really a fascinating display.

Selecting good stock

If you are having your fish shipped you usually won’t have any control over which individual fish you receive. In these cases, you need to trust the supplier to select good stock for you. Reputable breeders who have been around for years know that they have to provide quality stock or their reputation will be ruined. One thing I run into a lot is potential purchasers who want me to take photos just for them so they can select the fish they want. I always flatly refuse. I’m not selling fish to make a profit and I’m not willing to spend 20 minutes or more taking photos. Also, I’ve found that if I do provide photos they very often want more or a different angle or… Rather, I’ll generally take a photo or two of the current batch of fish I am selecting stock from. This provides a representative sample of what the fish look like but doesn’t apply to any specific individual fish.

Sometimes you might special order stock through your local fish store. This can turn out great or there can be problems. Many pet stores get their fish from large distributors who may be getting wild or farmed Apistogrammas. Both of these can present difficulties. The biggest risk with wild fish is misidentification and sexability. Both of these are possible problems when the fish are small which is not uncommon with wild fish. If you ask the store to order wild fish for you expect to buy them even if they don’t seem to be what you were expecting. Remember that you asked the store to spend their money to acquire the fish just for you. In my opinion, this puts an obligation on you to buy them as long as the store never misrepresented them to you.

If the distributor is importing farmed Apistos, they could be anything from excellent breeding stock to deformed inbred specimens. There is often no way to guess what you might get but the store should be able to find out from the distributor where the fish originated. If they are from a European source they are likely to be higher quality but if they are from Asia, they could be anything.

The same factors are at play with fish in stock at the fish store. The difference is that here you can carefully examine the fish in the tank before deciding to buy. If they are tiny wild fish you might not know what species or sex they are until they’ve been in your tank for months. Farmed fish will usually be nearly adult size and you should be able to examine them for body shape, the shape and size of their fins, color shade and vibrancy, and deportment. Be sure to look for deformed fins or scales as these can be indicators of inbreeding. Also, be aware that sometimes the fish are quite old. I don’t where they come from, but I’m always surprised when I find a store with Apistos that are obviously well past their prime.

Color Varieties

Many species of wild and farmed Apistogramma are offered in multiple color varieties. Domestic strains are created through years of selective breeding to modify the colors. In the wild, color variants are found naturally in different populations of a species. (Note: what we have always considered to be geographic populations of a species are likely to be species themselves.) Apistogramma agassizii is probably the most extreme example with multiple domestic strains and wild varieties. A. cacatuoides, A. macmasteri, and others also have multiple strains as do Blue Rams, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi

It seems that there is always a ready market for new color varieties with new forms being introduced more often than in the past. Unfortunately, at various places in the supply chain, people have discovered that it can be profitable to give a new name to a long-recognized color form. Many domestic color forms have multiple common names and new ones arise on a regular basis. If you are considering fish with a specific color name attached understand that color names are often liberally applied.

Tankmates

I’ve covered this topic in depth in the article Aquarium Care for Apistogramma.

Selecting tankmates for a breeding tank is a bit different than for a community tank. Many species that might be suitable in a community tank won’t work in a breeding tank. For example, Corydoras and most other catfish are usually fine in a community tank but generally lead to failure in a breeding tank. The only fish that will work are those that are timid, live in the upper level of the tank, and have mouths best suited to tiny food.

The use of tankmates is generally more appropriate for tanks with breeding pairs. Once you get three or more Apistos in a tank they will provide enough interaction with each other to satisfy any need. There are generally two reasons why other fish might be added to a breeding tank.

Dither Fish

Dither fish serve to add color and motion to the upper water layer and to increase the sense of security for the Apistos who are reassured by their presence above. Some use dithers to attract male aggression to keep them out of his territory but I’ve rarely found this necessary. Of course, my tanks are so thick with plants that there is rarely enough open water to satisfy most dithers.

There are only a few types of fish I consider to be good companions in the Apistogramma breeding tank and they are Otocinclus catfish and pencilfish. Of course, the Otos remain hidden most of the time and are rarely spotted by the breeders. Many pencilfish species will work as they typically stay near the top and have smaller mouths. Additionally, they are rarely bold enough to swoop in to steal baby Apistos as opposed to most tetras which will quickly devour a school of fry. While the pair tries to stop them, they are just too fast zipping in to grab and run. Thankfully, pencilfish generally aren’t that aggressive.

Target Fish

A target fish is exactly what its name says, a target. It’s added to the tank specifically to be a target for aggression from the male, female, or both. Sometimes if the pair is not bonding the addition of a common enemy pulls them together and changes the dynamic between them. This can often lead to the creation of a pair bond that carries into spawning. While it’s commonly perceived that Apisto pair aggression comes from the male, I’ve seen many situations where the aggressor is the female and a target fish can help here as well.

A number of different species can be used as targets but my favorite is a female of the same species. This works great for me because I usually have extras of the species and I keep them in multiple tanks so if this causes critical problems, I can quickly relocate fish. I understand that this might be impossible for many hobbyists.

The addition of another female to the tank will immediately change the dynamic. She will be considered an invader to the territory of the existing female. Although, depending on the species, the male might not care. Immediately social aggressiveness will commence and the newly introduced female will likely be chased into hiding so make sure you have several dense hiding areas where she can escape into. This might quickly lead to a truce between the original pair that can last beyond the removal of the extra female. It’s also possible that the male and second female could bond in which case the original female will need to be removed. I had this happen only to discover that the first female was actually a sneaker male. Depending on your specific outcome you need to always be ready to remove a bullied fish.

Juvenile Apistogramma as Tankmates

Although I have more tanks than many, I still often find myself with not enough space to accommodate all my needs. Consequently, I’ll often keep a pair of one species in a tank where I’m growing out juveniles of another species. This can be a tricky balance but I’ve made it work on many occasions. It seems to be best if the grow-outs are very young but large enough and smart enough to avoid being eaten. If I introduce a young pair there is usually no problem until the pair produce their own fry. By this time the grow-outs have learned to stay away from the parents by hiding in the dense vegetation and they get plenty to eat because the live brine shrimp I’m feeding the new fry swim into all areas of the tank. Of course, this is not a viable long-term solution so I’m frequently moving fish as situations change.

Invertebrates

snail on aquarium glass

While I generally discourage the addition of fish as tankmates, I encourage including invertebrates. Specifically, non-egg-eating snails and shrimp can be helpful additions to your tank. I use ramshorn snails and the only problem I have is keeping the snails alive. Since my water is very low in minerals the snails have trouble forming hard shells and their reproduction rate often vanishes. However, they do a good job of cleaning up uneaten food and help with algae control. I usually keep at least one hard water tank as a snail nursery to provide a fresh supply of healthy snails for tanks that are soft and acidic.

Most shrimp are suitable tankmates but they may end up as Apisto food. If your adult shrimp are too big to fit in your fish’s mouth they should be OK but if you reproduce them and have baby shrimp in the tank most will become fish food. However, if your tank is densely planted, you might be able to maintain a colony of shrimp in your breeding tank. If you can they are helpful for clean-up duty.

Spawning Apistogrammas

Note: for my ease of writing, except for where specifically noted, I’m writing this section as if the breeding fish are a single male/female pair. If you are planning a trio or harem most of the info applies directly.

Successful breeding begins when you first introduce the prospective breeders to the breeding tank. It might seem odd to focus on this early stage but it’s critical that you ease the transition into the new tank. While many fish will adapt to their new surroundings without any problems. You must be very watchful for aggression during the early days. Often aggression appears early but often not at introduction. Sometimes it takes a day or two until the tank is fully explored and one fish decides it needs to dominate. While this is usually the male, having a female who bullies is not unusual.

Pre-spawn behavior

The first behaviors your pair exhibit begin with their introduction to the tank. It’s always best to introduce both fish at the same time. Male and female Apistos are territorial and if one fish has the tank alone they will claim the entire tank as theirs. This is especially a problem if the male stakes out the entire tank and you try to introduce a female. Sometimes this works but often it doesn’t. I’ve often found that when a female is really ready to spawn, introducing an unknown male into her tank will often result in spawning within a couple of hours. It seems that in the wild females often make mate selection quickly prior to spawning and I’ve seen that happen in the aquarium.

Most often if there is trouble one fish will chase the other without mercy. If you have a properly designed tank this usually isn’t a problem but if you are missing the dense hiding areas you need to be prepared to add temporary cover. If the male is the aggressor, the female will usually be a drab neutral color. She may roll sideways to display her belly to the male but more often will just try to flee. Some males are content to keep her at a short distance without much aggression while others will fall anywhere from that level to full-blown search-and-destroy mode. Again, dense cover is the answer. In these situations, you might consider adding dither or target fish.

Depending on the behavior dynamics between your pair they will usually reach some sort of balance that can vary widely from grudging acceptance to obvious pair bonding. However, don’t ever count on things progressing as you hope. I’ve seen many examples of a couple that seems fine suddenly breaking out into war.

In some pairs, the female will exhibit her yellow brood care colors most of the time. Since brooding females are often aggressive in the protection of their fry, the adoption of brood colors seems to come with a “don’t pick on me” attitude. This can serve as a signal to the male and significantly alter his behavior as he backs down from the female in any conflict. However, brood care colors aren’t a long-term answer to peaceful pairing. One reason is that it appears to be hard for a female to maintain brood colors when she is close to ripening eggs for a spawn. Often females get very drab colored immediately prior to spawning with the yellow brood care colors appearing only after egg laying.

Ultimately, if provided good food, water, and habitat the female will ripen eggs and will want to spawn. In my experience, a willing female will always charm an aggressive male and the fights they had been participating in are no longer a factor. If you can get the pair to this point they are more likely to remain compatible. However, if the female loses the spawn the male might quickly turn on her so be ready with temporary cover. Often, if she loses her spawn, she will stay bright yellow and the male will treat her as if she is caring for fry. However, as described above, the yellow color alone won’t protect her if the male gets aggressive – be ready with temporary cover.

It’s really hard for me to write about the interactions between the sexes because there is so much variety that I can’t begin to cover it all. Some pairs take to each other immediately and stay close together all the time with only gentle interactions. Many are somewhere on the scale of peaceful coexistence and there are many different behavior interactions that can take place. Most are of an “I’m here and this is my space” theme but there are many others. Usually, these daily interactions lead to pre-spawn behavior.

The pre-spawn displays between the fish are truly spectacular as the female shimmies and bends into impossible shapes showing off to the male. The male returns the display in various ways including fin spreading and clamping, gentle tail slapping, and rapid head shakes which could possibly be making a sound only detectable to the fish. Usually, once the serious spawning preparation displays begin it’s usually not too long until the actual spawning takes place. This is in contrast to some of the West African dwarf cichlids where pre-spawn behavior can last for weeks.

Triggering a spawn

It’s really frustrating when you’ve provided a good habitat and your fish are well-fed and happy but they just won’t spawn. This isn’t at all unusual and I’ve had it happen many times. So what can you do?

First, make sure you have a male/female pair. Apistogrammas are known for producing sneaker males. These biological males never develop visible male characteristics but instead, they perfectly mimic a female. This allows males to survive and possibly even spawn in the wild where the largest males chase away any obvious competition and looking like a female is a defense mechanism. Sneaker males are usually a bigger problem with tank-raised fish, especially some of the specially developed commercial color varieties. Unfortunately, the only way to check if your female is a male is to give it its own tank for a month or longer. Most sneaker males will begin to develop as a male when removed from others of the same species. I’ve recently received “pairs” from separate reliable suppliers and only after 6 months or more of care have I realized they were 2 males.

A spawning trigger that can create problems but often works is to add a second female to the tank. This will surely cause disruption but it can trigger a spawn, or result in a pairing with the new female. I want to emphasize that this will likely cause significant disruption so watch the fish carefully and be prepared to intervene if necessary. Rather than adding another of the same species, you can try adding a few dither fish to possibly stimulate a pair response.

Sometimes you can trigger a spawn by conducting a massive water change of up to 90%. A week of extra feeding followed by the water change may be the trigger needed. Many species seem to be triggered by atmospheric conditions and during times of changing weather spawns often occur. I’ve often had multiple females of different species spawn on the same day as a weather front moves through. You can also try using water with a higher humic content.

Often the only thing to do is wait. It can actually take nearly a year for some Apistogramma species to spawn for the first time. So, sometimes a young pair needs time. At the other end, as a female gets older she produces eggs at a much slower rate and it can be months between spawns. While young breeders are usually more prolific, with older fish you often have to wait. In some species, it’s possible that there can be a sort of seasonal spawning cycle. As you move farther from the equator there are greater seasonal differences and it’s possible that some fish may be somewhat seasonal in their spawning.

A more extreme measure you can try is to split up the pair to separate aquariums for a few weeks or longer. Of course, they can’t possibly spawn while in separate aquariums but when they are reintroduced to each other spawning may follow.

Finally, for some fish, especially very old fish, a long period of hardship might be a trigger. Several months of very little food combined with no water changes will add a lot of stress to the fish. If this period of hardship is followed by massive frequent water changes and plenty of food (especially live food) the fish will often respond by producing a spawn. Based only on my own opinion, I’ve often thought of this as putting the fish through conditions that are similar to a difficult dry season followed by a flood season bringing in fresh water and new foods. It’s hard to intentionally neglect your fish and I don’t recommend this as a regular practice but if you have fish that just never spawn after a year or so this might be worth trying.

Spawning

photo of Apistogramma rubrolineata female inside a cave guarding her nemly laid eggs
Most Apistogramma eggs range from pink to bright cherry red in color with a white cap on each egg.

Spawning typically takes place inside the cave where the female carefully lays rows of eggs on the ceiling of the cave. The eggs are usually red in color, often a very vibrant red with an offsetting white cap. Sometimes the eggs are somewhat scattered in patches but often the rows are tightly aligned in a neat formation. The size of the spawn will vary significantly depending on the species, size, and diet of the fish. Typically a spawn will be from about 40 to as many as 200 eggs. The egg-laying process progresses rather quickly and is over in about 20 – 40 minutes. During this time the male periodically enters the cave and rolls sideways to release his milt. If the cave entrance is too small for the male to enter, he will fertilize from outside the cave using his fins to move the milt to the eggs.

Egg and larval fry care

Normally, as soon as egg laying has finished the female chases the male away and takes sole ownership of the cave. Depending on the tank and the individual fish there may or may not be much interaction between the fish. In a larger tank with a complex habitat, the female may never leave her immediate area and the male may stay in a different part of the tank. However, if there is a lot of open area the fish will likely be in frequent contact which might be great or disastrous. Sometimes the female accepts the male as her mate and associates with him in a friendly fashion but other times she turns on him and attacks constantly and viciously. At this point, he better have a place to run and hide or else you need to remove him. This leads to a common suggestion that you remove the male immediately after spawning is completed. I don’t agree with this but I don’t have any problem with people who do. I always enjoy watching the interactions between the male and female after spawning.

Sometimes there is not much interaction because the female stays in the cave with the eggs where she spends most of her time fanning them with her fins to create water flow which brings oxygen to the eggs. She also spends time mouthing the eggs. It’s believed this helps to keep them clear of microorganisms and may help reduce microbes. Any egg that fails to develop is either eaten or removed from the cave. This keeps infertile eggs from developing fungus which can easily spread to healthy eggs if not removed.

It’s at this stage when many spawns fail, especially spawns from inexperienced females. Some spawns fail because fertilization was unsuccessful. This is often the problem when the water is too hard, not acidic enough, or lacking in humic compounds. I’ve had this happen with multiple species and I suggest you look at water quality first. When the entire spawn fails the female may eat the eggs or she might move them out of the cave and leave them laying. Without any scavengers, they will quickly fungus and decompose. Sometimes a young male will need a spawn or two to figure it out and I’ve rarely had a male that was infertile.

Sometimes spawns fail at the egg stage because the female eats the eggs. This is especially common with inexperienced females. Many will eat their first clutch or two and then settle in to be a good mother. My personal observation is that wild fish seem to be better parents than tank raised, especially those that are dozens (hundreds?) of generations from the wild. Some females eat the spawn slowly, eating a single egg at a time spread out over a day or longer while others will quickly eat them all once they begin.

2-3 days after spawning, the eggs are ready to hatch and the female may give them some assistance by chewing or sucking them out of their eggshell. She will then deposit them into a pile at the bottom of the cave. If the female doesn’t remove the fry they will normally burst the shell on their own and may remain attached to the cave or might fall to the bottom. In both cases, the female will ultimately find them and add them to the pile. At this point, the fry are barely recognizable as fish. They are almost more of a backbone and a belly with two black eyes. The big “belly” is actually the remains of the egg which is much larger than the rest of the fry. For the next 7 days or so the developing fry will gradually absorb the egg for the nutrition it needs to grow. During this time the female carefully tends to them. She will frequently pick up one or more and roll them around in her mouth before spitting them back out, presumably cleaning them in the process.

photo of female Apistogramma panduro with very young fry
Apistogramma panduro female tending newly emerged fry that are not yet fully free-swimming and still lay on the bottom most of the time. Within the next 12 hours, they will be actively following the female around the tank.

Depending on the species, water temperature, and other factors, the fry will begin to swim 8 – 10 days after egg laying. At this time the female will lead them out of the cave and escort them around the aquarium seeking their first foods. This is a special moment for most hobbyists. After all the years, I still get a thrill watching the proud mother leading her fry.

This is another time to watch interactions with the male very carefully. Depending on the pair, the male may take an active or even equal role in watching the fry. Unfortunately, in some cases, the female regards the male as a threat to the school and viciously chases the male. Be sure to have dense cover for him to hide in or add temporary hiding places (spawning mops). You may find it best to remove the male. If she chases the male into a secure hiding place where she doesn’t constantly find him you can probably leave them together and at some point in days, weeks, or months she may allow the male to be in her neighborhood and at some point she will want to spawn again and will be looking for a male.

Brood care

At this time the female will generally be a vibrant yellow with dark black markings. The intensity of the color and size, shape, and distribution of black markings vary considerably between species. However, in many closely related species it might be impossible to tell females apart. It seems the fry have no problem and they follow their high-contrast mother around the tank as she gives them signals through body and fin movements. With a flick of her fins, they will drop to the bottom and stay motionless until she signals all-clear. She has a variety of behaviors that she uses to keep the school together but she is also always alert for fry that stray too far. If she spots a straggler (or explorer) she will swim to it, suck it into her mouth, and return to spit it back into the school.

Initially, the fry remain tight together and the female is ever vigilant, sometimes following the school as they search for food and other time leading the school to a place of her choosing. As time passes, the school gets looser and the female becomes less diligent in her efforts, however, she will always reassemble the school inside the cave at night. It can seem uncanny how she will know to gather the fry for the night before the lights go off. After a month or so she may not use the cave but will still gather the fry beneath her for the night.

Sometimes the male will take an active role in fry care. The level of care will vary dramatically between pairs as some females are more receptive than others. Some species are more likely to share care than others but I’ve been surprised too many times to make general statements. Some males will stick to patrolling an outer territory only approaching on occasion. Others will take an active role and will gather up fry and spit them into the school and perform other care tasks. I’ve had pairs where the female almost seems to abandon the fry to the male soon after emerging and have often had pairs that seem to equally share the work. Unfortunately, on a couple of occasions, I’ve had males kill the females and take over care.

Raising Apistogramma fry

With young healthy fish, a week or ten days after the fry become free swimming the female will be ready to spawn again. If your priority is to raise the fry there are several options to consider. Removing the male will always solve the problem as the female needs a male to spawn. Without the male, she will continue to care for the fry. Removing the fry to a larger grow-out tank is another option. Tiny fry can often be siphoned from the tank using a rigid tube on the end of a section of airline hose. It might be possible to net them or you can try to capture them in a fish trap. Although you will need a larger volume aquarium for growing up the fry, if you place your week-old babies into a large tank they might have trouble. Since it’s best to leave the fry with the mother as long as possible, I’ve often allowed the female to spawn again and find she will typically continue to tend to the school of fry while also keeping an eye on the eggs. This works until a couple of days prior to free-swimming when she is likely to turn on one spawn or the other.

Another option is to allow the female to spawn and then remove the cave and eggs after spawning. This usually doesn’t cause disruption with her fry care and it will be another week or two before she is ready to spawn again. Finally, you can choose to leave the fry in the tank and hope for the best. Depending on the female, she may just chase the older fry away from the new but she could turn on the completely and eat any that approach. Unfortunately, the fry don’t realize that her status has changed and want to come near her If you have a densely planted tank and a female that isn’t a total terror many of the fry can survive and grow out in the spawning tank. It’s rare to get large numbers this way but I’ve had tanks with fish from half a dozen different spawns living together.

At some point, most hobbyists will have to confront raising the fry without a parent. Fortunately, this is usually pretty easy. The key to raising fry is the same as raising healthy fish – good habitat, good water, and good food. I find a complex habitat to be important for fry growth. They will begin to squabble and have displays of dominance at a young age and complexity significantly reduces stress among the fry. Frequent water changes make a big difference. I’ve had great success in raising spawns in tanks considered to be too small by providing frequent water changes of up to 60% daily. Most hobbyists’ fish are better served by having a larger size tank with regular water changes.

I feed my growing fish mostly live baby brine shrimp. Even into adult size, I find this to be a great food source which I supplement with daily feeding of various prepared foods. Feeding prepared foods can be difficult as it’s hard to get the food in front of the fish and it’s hard not to overfeed. I usually try to have snails in the tank to help with cleanup. If the fry are large enough to avoid being eaten you can add a couple of small Corydoras catfish. With good feeding and plenty of water changes the juvenile Apistos will begin to show sexual differences at 3 to 5 months of age. The most dichromatic species tend to show first while some of the species in which sexes look much alike can take 6 months or more to show differences. Typically by about 6 months, they have matured enough for a pair to begin breeding. However, there are many instances of a female being a year old before spawning.

Distributing the offspring

large group of young adult A. steindachneri
These are a few of the hundreds of male A. steindachneri that I ended up with after two consecutive spawns turned out to be all males.

Hopefully, you’ve developed a plan for distributing your offspring. While spawns of over 100 fry are not uncommon, you can usually count on raising 20 – 50 fish from a spawn and most of us aren’t prepared to house that many adults in our tanks. Consequently, you need to determine how to find good homes for your fish. It’s really difficult to end up with a bunch of fish that you don’t want to house and can’t find homes for. Here are some possible ways to reduce your surplus.

Sell or give them to another hobbyist – As discussed above, you are now a Hobbyist Breeder but now you’re the one with fish to sell. Place a listing on local social media sites, join an aquarium club, and get the word out that you have them available and you might find individuals to purchase your surplus fish.

You can take them to the local independent pet store where their response can be anything between enthusiastic and dismissive. If the shop sells Apistos they will be better informed about local supply and demand and might take fish from you accordingly. However, they are unlikely to sell a lot of Apistos and might only want a few. It will be up to you to negotiate fair compensation for your fish. It’s most likely that the store will want to offer you store credit instead of cash and it’s up to you to decide if that’s acceptable. Also, be prepared to be shocked at the low price they offer 20% or less of the retail price is not uncommon. If you’re desperate to sell you’ll have to take what they offer but you might be able to negotiate a better price. Point out that you are delivering live fish directly to them so there are no freight charges or DOAs. Also, highlight that you’ve been keeping them in local water (it’s a good idea to acclimate them to tap water before selling them). This might help your case but oftentimes not.

One big problem a hobbyist breeder has is saturating the market. I’ve done this many times in the past when I’ve had too much success breeding and the local market has become saturated for the species. This can really be a problem if you get carried away with raising them and end up with three or four good spawns. Apistogrammas are not popular pet store fish so their sale volume is always limited and it’s not hard to end up with a massive surplus. You should always have a plan for your offspring.

If you are willing to enter the world of fish shipping you’ll have a lot more options as your customer base is national. However, you have to be willing to box and ship fish, a subject I’ll deal with in a future article. If you can ship, I’ve prepared a list of internet options for buying fish that are also great places for selling fish. You can find information in my Guide to buying Apistogramma and other dwarf cichlids.

If you want to try shipping on a whole different level, you can contact a specialty fish seller to see if they are interested in buying your entire stock. Depending on the species this can be an option if you are willing to sell at a wholesale price.

Conclusion

Well, that’s my discussion of breeding Apistogramma species. I know that I’ve failed to answer hundreds of questions and I’m already going back and adding info I know I’ve forgotten. However, I’ve tried to cover a lot of the issues you might confront as you begin breeding. Every hobbyist is in a different situation and it’s up to you to determine what works best. I’ve tried to provide suggestions and examples but ultimately, you need to decide how to best handle your fish. That said, there are many people on the internet who will be happy to tell you exactly what to do and sometimes they might even be helpful.

Breeding Apistogrammas is actually pretty easy. Give them good habitat, good water, and good food and they will usually do the rest for you. Remember, you aren’t spawning the fish, you’re just providing them an ideal environment to do it in.

There is no one right way for keeping and breeding Apistos and you need to do it in the way that works best for you and your fish. While some things are more important than others, there are very few absolutes so I recommend you distrust anyone who tells you that “you have to…”, “you can only…”, or “you can never…”. While their observations are accurate from their perspective, the elasticity of keeping these fish has taught me that there are no absolutes. You are likely to face obstacles on your path to becoming an accomplished Apistogramma breeder but learn from mistakes and you’ll be fine in the long run.

References

Most of the information I provide on this website comes from books and websites. While I don’t provide specific citations, these are the sources for most of my information.
South American Books:
Mergus Cichlid Atlas Volume 1 & Volume 2 by Dr. Uwe Römer
South American Dwarf Cichlids by Rainer Stawikowski, I. Koslowski and V. Bohnet
Die Buntbarsche Amerikas Band 2 Apistogramma & Co. by Ingo Koslowski, Translation by Mike Wise
South American Dwarf Cichlids by Hans J. Mayland & Dieter Bork
American Cichlids I – Dwarf Cichlids by Horst Linke & Dr. Wolfgang Staeck
West African Books:
The Cichlid Fishes of Western Africa by Anton Lamboj
African Cichlids I – Cichlids From West Africa by Horst Linke & Dr. Wolfgang Staeck
Websites:
Apisto sites – the home page of Tom C – Global authority for identification and classification of apistogrammas
Apistogramma.com – An excellent international forum with expert members who gladly share their knowledge.
Much more information is available in our complete exploration of dwarf cichlid information resources.