Bolivian Ram – Mikrogeophagus altispinosus – Care & Breeding

Mikrogeophagus altispinosus often called Bolivian Ram cichlid male female pair

Bolivian rams, Mikrogeophagus altispinosus are moderate-sized and peaceful dwarf cichlids that are closely related to the blue ram cichlid Mikrogeophagus ramerizi. They make excellent community residents where they patrol the bottom searching for bits of food. They tolerate a wide range of water conditions and can be kept in groups or as pairs. Bolivian rams are noticeably larger than blue rams and large males can grow to 3 1/2 inches.

M. altispinosus General Information

As with many South American cichlids, there has been a lot of confusion about the scientific name of these fish. They are actually the first species described in the genus. The American ichthyologist J.D. Haseman described them in 1911 as Crenicara altispinosa. He based his description on fish collected by a Carnegie Museum expedition in 1907. The name aptispinosa came from altus (Latin for tall) and spinosa (Latin for spiny) which refers to the tall spikey fin rays at the front of the dorsal fin. The dorsal fin is very obvious as it is about 1/2 the height of the body.

large male Bolivian Ram cichlid mikrogeophagus altispinosa
Bolivian rams are high bodied with a narrow profile. This is a large mature male.

Although they were described as a Crenicara species, over the years other names have been used including Microgeophagus, Papiliochromis, and Mikrogeophagus. To learnmore about the naming of the genus visit the History of Mikrogeophagus. Variations of the species name including M. altispinosa and M. altispinossus have been used.  M. altispinosus are more commonly encountered in pet stores than most dwarfs and are sold under several common names. Most commonly they are called Bolivian rams but they are sometimes marketed as Ruby Clown Cichlids.

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M. altispinosus Varieties

In 1992 a new variety of M. altispinosus was introduced to the aquarium hobby. It looked much the same as M. altispinosus except for a large dark blotch on the caudal peduncle that matches the large dark patch on the fish’s shoulder area. These dark patches gave rise to the name “Two-Patch”, “Two-spot” or “Zweifleck”. This form has been determined to be a distinct species and in 2022 it was described as Mikrogeophagus maculicauda.

According to the description of the species, “the distribution of Mikrogeophagus maculicauda is restricted to the eastern tributaries of the upper Rio Guaporé. So far, the only documented collecting sites are situated in the Rio Pindaituba (or Ribeirão Pintaituba), a tributary to the Rio Sararé in the Estado Mato Grosso. The Rio Pindaituba is a small river, the water level seasonally fluctuates by several meters. At the beginning of April 1999, its soft and acidic water had quite a strong current during the high-water season. Several measurements of parameters of the water, which the first author took on the road between Ponte e Lacerda and Vilhena (Mato Grosso), had the following results: air temperature of 29.5°C, water temperatures of 25.3°C, pH of 6.5, electrical conductivity of 20 μS/cm, and total and temporary hardness of <1°dH.”

Mikrogeophagus maculicauda are sometimes available from specialty cichlid sellers but they are not nearly as common as M. altispinosus. They are also probably offered for sale in pet stores at times labeled as M. altispinosus or Bolivian rams as most aquarists would not notice the difference.

male M. alltispinosus in pre-spawning colors
This male Bolivian ram is beginning to show the intensified coloration they display when breeding. This photo was taken about 5 days pre-spawn.

M. altispinosus in the wild

M. altispinosus are known to be found in waters across a wide section of Bolivia including the cities of Trinidad and San Joaquin. There are only a few collection accounts available but it’s believed their range includes the Rio Mamoré and the middle and lower Rio Guaporé basins in Bolivia and Brazil.

Linke & Staeck report capturing them in a murky pool that was directly open to the sun. Water temperature was 81°F, pH 7.6, and 4°dGH. Other collection accounts describe habitats featuring smooth bottoms with sand, mud, and clay-like substrates. There are no reports of aquatic vegetation present but one account noted dense growths of shoreline vegetation.

M. altispinosus in the aquarium

Bolivian rams are generally pretty easy to care for in the home aquarium. They can live in water ranging from very soft to moderately hard. They do well with low pH values but can do just fine at 7.5 or higher. They are omnivores and will eat almost any prepared, frozen, or live foods.

small group of adult Bolivian rams, Mikrogeophagus altispinosus
Outside of breeding times, Bolivian rams are not too aggressive and can often be kept in groups. This tank is more densely panted than a tank dedicated to altispinosus should be but there are 8-9 full-grown rams sharing a 30-gallon tank with 15 – 20 Apistogramma atahualpa of various sizes and the extra cover reduces aggression. Most of the time, everything was peaceful in the tank.

Setting Up a Bolivian Ram Aquarium

M. altispinosus are rather tolerant of environmental conditions in an aquarium which makes it easier to provide a suitable habitat. Ideally, you’ll give them a tank with significant open space as they love to gather and sift sand. Sand is an ideal substrate and, although they do nicely on gravel, they strongly prefer it.

Live plants are very helpful for adding cover and supporting biological filtration. Although wild rams are often found in open water, I find it beneficial to have floating plants cover all or a portion of the surface. This provides shade and tends to calm the fish as it reduces their fear of overhead predators. For more about live plants, visit our Guide to Live Plants in Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums.

While the rams like open areas on the bottom, you don’t need to have the whole bottom open. Feel free to aquascape and decorate and make the tank attractive to you. Just make sure there is a significant-sized open area for the rams.

I’ve kept Bolivian rams in various sizes of aquaria and I recommend a tank that is at least 24′ in length for a pair or small group. I consider this to be the minimum and encourage a larger tank when possible. Bolivian rams will adapt to a wide range of water conditions. Ideally, I shoot for a pH of 6.5, a temperature of 76°F, and a hardness of up to 8 dGH.

Feeding Bolivian Rams

M. altispinosus are bottom feeders and spend their time picking at the substrate in search of food. If they are on gravel, they will constantly search around the individual pieces picking at anything they find. If they are on a sand substrate, they will constantly take mouthfuls of sand and sift it out through their gills. They don’t usually dig very deep but they thoroughly cover the bottom. Much of the foods they acquire this way are tiny, often smaller than what we would think they are feeding on. This is something to note as often it might seem like your Bolivian rams aren’t eating the food you give them. They seem to pick it up, chew on it, and spit it out. It might seem like they never eat. However, all of this chewing and mouthing is breaking down the food and tiny pieces are being consumed. Each of these pieces may be tiny but the fish eats this way all day long.

My favorite foods for Bolivian rams are shrimp pellets and other sinking pelleted foods. Feed just a pellet or two and the fish will gnaw on them until they soften and are eaten. Flake food is nutritious but it’s hard to get the food down to the rams. Sinking pellets are nice because you can drop them where you want to feed. Frozen foods are eagerly eaten and I don’t think I’ve ever fed any they refused. Live foods are a bonus. Baby brine shrimp are eagerly consumed as are white worms which should probably only be offered once or twice a week.

large male M. altispinosus Bolivian ram and one large male Apistogramma atahualpa showing respective sizes
These two full-grown males show the size difference between M. altispinosus and Apistogramma atahualpa which is one of the larger Apistos. These fish were from small groups of both species that coexisted peacefully for several years.

Bolivian Ram Tankmates

Bolivian rams are great community fish. They are relatively peaceful and provide interesting behaviors in the lower level of an aquarium. Since they tolerate a wide range of water conditions, they are compatible with most other types of fish. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when selecting their tankmates.

  • Bolivian rams stay on or near the bottom. They like to have cleared areas where they can sift through the substrate looking for food. While they will tolerate other fish in the lower part of the tank, they will do best if the bottom is all theirs. Catfish can be kept with non-breeding Bolivian rams but they will be happier on their own.
  • Bolivian rams are fairly gentle and don’t do well with aggressive fish. This pretty much rules out other cichlids except for some of the South American dwarfs. However, avoid West African dwarf cichlids as tankmates. Depending on the tank setup and the personalities of the individual fish, many Apistogramma species could be suitable.
  • M. altispinosus can be aggressive, especially when breeding. While they are generally peaceful, at spawning time all bets are off and you might find them terrorizing any fish that try to stay near the bottom. Generally, they will ignore fish swimming in the upper layers but be aware.
  • Loaches, eels, and the like are probably not appreciated by the rams.

Good tankmates for Bolivian rams include:

  • Other Bolivian Rams – unless you are trying to breed them, Bolivian rams can usually be kept in a group of 6 or more. Fewer than 6 may be successful depending on the temperament of the individual fish.
  • Tetras – most species inhabit mid to upper-water levels and make great companions.
  • Barbs and Danios – much like tetras, they inhabit upper levels and add color and movement to the tank.
  • Pencil fish & hatchet fish – Peaceful and quiet sticking to upper water layers.
  • Bettas – there is usually no problem keeping bettas and rams together.
  • Angelfish & Discus – Angels can be fine in a tall tank. However, Discus require temperatures that are above what I recommend for the rams.
  • Otocinclus catfish – these small suckermouth fish are peaceful and cohabit nicely with Bolivian rams.
  • Livebearers – While I’ve never done it, I think this can be a good combination if it’s something you want to try.
  • Gouramis – Most gouramis inhabit the mid and upper water levels and can be good companions. However, some species grow rather large and aggressive so be careful in your species selection.
  • Killifish – work well but they are rarely available from most pet stores.

Breeding Bolivian Rams – M. altispinosus

Obtaining a Compatible Pair of Bolivian Rams

If you want to breed Bolivian rams your first challenge is to acquire a compatible Male/Female pair. The best way to do this is to purchase a group of young fish and raise them together until they pair off naturally. This takes time and tank space but results in compatible pairs that stay mated as long as they are kept together.

Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to tell the sex of Bolivian rams. The males and females are very similar in appearance and the only sure indicator is the female’s development of an ovipositor when she is in a pre-spawn condition. Generally but not always, males are slightly larger than females, males have slightly longer fins than females, and healthy females appear to be a bit ‘heavier” in their bodies. These are subtle differences and are not always reliable. However, they are things to consider.

The difficulty is sexing makes it tough to be sure you get a male and a female when you purchase a pair. If you purchase directly from a breeder, you can usually be confident that they will provide reliable sexing info. However, if you can’t find a reputable breeder and you can’t raise a group you will have to try to select a pair from a pet store.

Buying Bolivian Rams From A Pet Store

Bolivian rams are not uncommon at retail pet stores. They are usually available from wholesalers and many independent stores keep them in stock. I’ve often seen them offered in major chain stores as well. Try to find a store that has a group in stock. You can watch their interactions in the store to get clues as to which fish you might want. Watch how the fish behave and note if any seem to work together to keep the others at bay. If so, it’s likely that they can be a compatible pair. You may even find an obvious pair that look like they want to spawn in the store. Sometimes, you can identify several compatible pairs in the same tank.

If you don’t find an obvious pair you will have to observe their behavior and appearance and try to pick one of each sex. Generally, if there is an obviously larger and more aggressive fish it will be a male. Males tend to chase each other more aggressively than they chase females. However, females may squabble with each other pretty vigorously. If you see a few fish that display to each other but are ignored by the male they are likely a group of females. These are subtle behaviors that are easy for me to suggest but, without lots of hours of observation, are difficult to utilize.

The bottom line is that you’ll need to take in every clue you can, including suggestions from the store staff (if you trust them), and pick out the pair you feel best about. Hopefully, they will turn out to be a pair but, if not, perhaps, you can return one to trade for another. If you are pretty sure you have a pair but they don’t seem interested in spawning you might need to give them more time. It’s not uncommon to wait a year for a spawn.

Pre-Spawn Care

You should introduce the pair into a well-established aquarium with a sand or fine gravel substrate. Provide a couple of flat rocks for potential spawning sites. A healthy growth of live plants will improve the environment and their surfaces provide a home for a rich microbial film that fry can feed on. Put only a single pair of M. altispinosus in the tank. They are pair-bonded fish and will attack any other rams. If you are planning to raise the fry there should be no other fish in the tank, just the pair of Bolivian rams. Provide them with good water conditions and food as described above.

With good feeding and liberal water changes, the rams will mature and begin to prepare for spawning. These fish are from areas far enough south of the equator that they have mild seasons and it’s reported that M. altispinosus may be seasonal spawners. This means that even if you are doing everything perfectly, they may take many months before they begin to show signs of spawning.

Spawning preparations can last for many days as the pair bond strengthens and the female ripens her eggs. When spawning nears the female will pick a flat surface where she can deposit her eggs. Often she will dig to find a good spot and you might be able to encourage her to spawn where you want by slightly burying a flat rock in the location you prefer and arranging the other decor to make that a logical spawning clearing. As spawning nears, she spends hours picking at the site to make sure it meets her standards.

Female Bolivian ram, Mikrogeophagu altispinosus guarding her newly laid eggs. The blunt ovipositor is very obvious
This female Bolivian ram is standing guard above the hundreds of eggs she has laid on the flat rock below her. This photo was taken within an hour of the completion of egg laying. The blunt ovipositor tube is very obvious on the bottom of the abdomen. This tube quickly disappears now that egg laying is complete.

Egg Laying and Brood Care

As spawning approaches, the female begins to show the obvious ovipositor descending from her abdomen. This blunt tube is unmistakable and its appearance is an indicator that spawning is near. The male’s genital papilla sometimes becomes noticeable as well. In contrast to the female, the male’s organ is narrow, pointed, and rarely extends far below the belly.

During spawning, the female glides slowly across the flat stone laying row after row of tiny translucent eggs. the male stays in the general area and frequently swims in to release his milt onto the eggs. This process continues until the female is empty, a process that can take more than an hour. A large female Bolivian Ram will spawn hundreds of rather small eggs.

At this point, the female sets up a guarding position hovering over the eggs. She is usually the primary guardian of the spawn, however, at times the male might join in. You might observe one of the parents lightly spitting sand onto the eggs. This interesting behavior likely provides camouflage for the eggs that helps to hide them from predators

The eggs hatch in two to three days and the non-swimming larval fry are moved into a pit dug into the substrate somewhere else in the tank. Over the next few days, the brood will be moved to various locations. Often a rotation of several pits will be used. In 7-9 days the fry will have absorbed their yolk sacs and will begin to swim as a school. From this point on care is usually quite easy.

Raising Bolivian Ram Fry

The newly free swimming fry are large enough to take baby brine shrimp and quickly begin to pick at other foodstuffs they find on the bottom and on any hard surfaces in the tank.  The parents make an attempt to keep the school together but many individuals soon begin to stray.  In a community tank, this is when the fry will rapidly disappear. However, in a breeding tank, it’s possible to raise a  large number of fry from a spawn.

It’s pretty easy to get the fry to feed on dried foods that sink to the bottom. However, you must take care not to overfeed. These tiny fish really don’t need much food in the early days. As they grow your feeding needs to keep pace. Water changes are a must. I recommend several changes of 20% – 40% weekly (more frequent is better). I really like live micro worms as fry food. They sink to the bottom and will live for many hours allowing the fish to slowly find them. I always try to have snails in a fry-rearing tank. They help to consume any leftover food and ignore the fry.

Once they are several weeks old care becomes standard. If you had a large spawn you’ll need larger adequate tank space to raise them in. It’s possible to raise them in cramped quarters but you have to be very diligent in water management, including daily water changes. M. altispinosus fry are fairly slow growing and even with good food and good water conditions it may take a year or longer before they will begin to pair up.

Buying M. altispinosus

Mikrogepphagus altispinosus are pretty easy to acquire. Many pet stores, including chain stores, offer them for sale. If your local pet store doesn’t stock them they can very likely order them for you. Since they are fairly common, there are few hobbyist breeders selling directly to other hobbyists. However, if you can find them this way you are likely to get high-quality fish. For more information check out our Complete Guide To Buying Dwarf Cichlids

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.