The Ram cichlid, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi, is one of the best-known and most popular of all cichlids. They are brilliantly colored gems that glisten and sparkle as light hits them. Since they were first introduced in the late 1940s, blue rams have been a staple in the hobby and remain one of the most highly prized and widely kept dwarf cichlids. There are several color varieties of tank-raised rams available and wild fish are often imported. Keep reading for complete information about ram cichlids.
Note: This is a long article so use the Table of Contents to jump to any section.
- Mikrogeophagus ramirezi General Information
- A Fish With Many Common Names
- History of Mikrogeophagus
- The Perfect Dwarf Cichlid?
- Mikrogeophagus ramirezi Varieties
- Mikrogeophagus ramirezi in the wild
- Mikrogeophagus ramirezi in the aquarium
- Preparing a Ram Cichlid Aquarium
- Water Conditions
- Considerations for the Prospective Ram Breeder
- Preparing the Spawning Tank
- Stocking the aquarium
- Forced Pairing
- Conditioning the pair
- Spawning and egg care
- Caring for Newly Hatched Blue Ram Fry
- Raising Ram Fry to Adults
- Artificial Rearing
- Additional Comments
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi General Information
Mikrogeophagus ramerizi, the blue ram, was one of the first cichlids I ever kept. This was in the 1960s and blue rams were a prized acquisition for a youngster with a limited budget. However, they were the highlight of one of my tanks for several years. Although I never managed to breed them, they fired my interest in dwarf cichlids.
At that time, only wild rams were offered for sale and their commonly accepted name was Apistogramma ramirezi. In contrast, today almost all rams are commercially produced by fish farms in Asia that produce enough rams to satisfy the voracious global demand. Years of selective breeding by dedicated hobbyists and commercial breeders have produced a number of spectacular Ram Cichlid color forms
For many years they were called Apistogramma ramerizi and most hobbyists thought that they were a typical example of an Apisto. True Apistogrammas were very rare in the hobby at the time and most hobbyists had never seen one. Those who did knew rams shouldn’t have been placed in Apistogramma and they’ve been given multiple scientific and common names since their introduction.
A Fish With Many Common Names
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi has a host of common names including;
- Butterfly Cichlid
- Ram Cichlid
- Blue Ram
- German Blue Ram
- Gold Ram
- Electric Blue Ram
- Black Ram
Although they are rarely referred to as Butterfly Cichlids anymore, the rest of these names are commonly used. I’ve heard other names applied to the new color variants that are being developed. There is profit in a name and putting a new name on a fish can often raise its desirability. Unfortunately, some breeders and suppliers are very liberal in their assignment of new names.
History of Mikrogeophagus
Historically, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi has more scientific names than common names. It was first introduced in 1947 and was described as Apistogramma ramirezi by Meyers and Harry in 1948. Although it was described as an Apistogramma, rams were obviously very different from the other fish of that genus. Over the years, ichthyologists suggested various new names.
- In 1958 Microgeophagus was first suggested but its use was never widely adopted.
- In 1960 Wickler suggested using “Apistogramma” in quotes in recognition of its uncertain status. Unfortunately, this suggestion was not followed
- In 1969 the name Pseudogeophagus was suggested
- In 1971 the name Pseudoapistogramma was suggested
- In 1977 the Swedish ichthyologist Dr. Sven Kullander weighed in with a complete redescription of the genus and established the name Papiliochromis. Most considered that the name was decided and Papiliochromis was briefly accepted.
- In 1982, the debate began anew as several authors advocated for the adoption of Mikrogeophagus
- In 1998 Kullander began to use the name Mikrogeophagus and recommended its universal use
This means that the debate seems to have ended and there is general agreement that Mikrogeophagus is the correct genus name. However, there is still confusion as to the exact spelling of the name and sometimes it is spelled Microgeophagus.
The Perfect Dwarf Cichlid?
Whatever common or scientific name you use for ram cichlids, they are stunning fish. In fact, in many respects, they are a perfect first dwarf cichlid. They remain small with an adult size of no more than 2 inches. They are not picky eaters and are not too aggressive. They can be easily spawned but successfully raising the fry often presents problems. Wild rams do best in soft acid water but most of the fish sold today are farm raised and are adaptable to a wide range of water conditions. Rams thrive in water temperatures that are higher than the ideal for many other fish and are best maintained at a minimum of 80°F and they enjoy temps up to at least 85°F. They are generally peaceful in a community tank where their preference to stay near the bottom allows for many choices of mid and upper-water tankmates. You can even plan your tank to include any of the ram cichlid color varieties.
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi Varieties
German Blue Rams – As I recall, it was in the 1980s when European hobbyists focused on breeding the highest quality rams possible. They produced heavy-bodied fish with brilliant colors and excellent fin development. These became known as “German Blue Rams” and were welcomed into the American hobby. Today, the name German Blue Ram or German Ram is often applied indiscriminately to farm-raised rams that are commonly available. Typically, these fish are stouter, more robust, and flashier than wild fish. While some of these fish are raised in hatcheries in Europe, most of them are raised on fish farms in Asia where they are mass-produced for export. With rare exceptions, none of the fish advertised as German rams today are the same fish as the originals.
Gold Rams – Gold Rams are a true-breeding color strain that has been in the hobby for many years. Their vibrant gold bodies add brilliant color to an aquarium. Aquarium care and breeding are the same as for blue rams (see below). Although they are very different in color, they are exactly the same fish. It’s usually more difficult to determine the sex of gold rams and you need to pay more attention to body and fin shape to judge the sex. Females will often be heavier in the lower body and will often have shorter and/or rounder fins.
Blue and gold rams breed true to type when crossed with their own strain. However, the two strains easily cross-breed and the resultant offspring typically look like blue rams. Although they look blue, they carry the genes for blue and gold and when crossed with others the recessive gold gene they will produce some percentage of gold offspring.
Electric Blue Rams – This colorful variety has been in the hobby since 2009 and their exact origin is unknown. The first individual may have appeared as a “sport” in a blue ram spawn and careful cross-breeding produced the line. Another possibility is that they were created through the cross-breeding of very colorful blue rams. They’ve been marketed under a number of common names including Electric Blue Ram and Neon Blue Ram. Be aware that they are tougher to sex than standard Rams.
Breeding is exactly the same as for other color forms but spawning success is often very low. Many eggs are infertile and the parents are often especially poor at caring for the eggs or fry. This is not surprising as many fish that are artificially reared for many generations lose some of their instinct to parent. This color strain has become fairly common in the hobby where they maintain a premium price compared to blue or gold rams.
Black Rams The newest color form are Black Rams. They range in color from very dark black to a dusky grey/black color. Some strains breed true while others have spawns that are mixed between shades of black and gold or blue. Many different names have been applied to this form including Dark Knight Rams, Midnight Rams, Blue-Black Rams, Dark Rams, and others. If you want to try black rams make sure to find a breeder who is reputable. Black rams are very difficult to sex and are noted for having small spawns with many infertile eggs.
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi in the wild
Ram cichlids are found in the savanna areas of the central and lower Orinoco River in Venezuela and in similar areas in Columbia. These savanna areas, or Llanos, are completely different than the rainforest habitats where most Apistogrammas are found. The savanna is a vast dry plain used primarily for cattle ranching. Scattered across the dry grasslands are natural and man-made ponds where rams are found. These pools are often very shallow and exposed to the direct sun in sweltering hot conditions. Consequently, the waters can get very warm and Römer describes catching fish in waters approaching 95°F (35°C )and it’s generally assumed they inhabit waters even warmer at times. These habitats explain why they prefer warmer aquarium temperatures than most fish.
Their native waters are very soft with pH values that mostly range between 5 and 6.5 but there are accounts that range from 4.6 to as high as 7.3. They inhabit many types of water but strongly prefer still, slow-moving waters or stagnant pools and ponds. They will form large schools in the open over sandy substrates. Breeding pairs can be found tending fry in wide-open spaces.
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi in the aquarium
Preparing a Ram Cichlid Aquarium
Rams want an aquarium that has open bottom spaces. They spend their time close to the bottom out in the open and don’t need caves or shelters. This doesn’t mean they need the entire bottom of a tank but you must be sure to create one or more open areas for them. Tanks that have a central open area with plants or decorations to the back and sides work well. Also, tanks with a centerpiece in the middle can work if open areas are left on the sides. If you are keeping just a pair the open area doesn’t have to be large but if you have a group of fish you’ll need a correspondingly large open area. I’ve had good success with a single breeding pair in a ten-gallon tank but I’d recommend a larger size whenever possible.
In the wild, rams are found in the open over sandy areas and sand makes the best substrate for keeping them. While you can use gravel, they seem much happier on a sand substrate. On this type of substrate they’ll spend hours picking up mouthfuls of sand and spitting it out by filtering it through their gills. In fact, the name Mikrogeophagus comes from the greek words meaning “little earth eater” and is taken from their habit of “eating” the sand.
If you are working with wild rams you must provide very soft and moderately acidic water (pH 5.5 – 6.5). However, if you are working with domestically produced fish you can probably use water of moderate hardness and a pH of up to 7.0. Most rams should live just fine in these conditions but if you are spawning them in harder, non-acidic water the hatch rates can be reduced, sometimes significantly.
Rams need warm to very warm water. They come from areas where the waters are much warmer than you might expect. Whether you have wild or tank-raised fish, you should keep the tank temperature at a minimum of 80° F and a few degrees warmer is better. Keep an eye on the temperature because rams won’t thrive or show their best colors if the water is too cool.
Ram cichlids are found in quiet and calm waters in the wild. They inhabit ponds, lakes, and even puddles but are not found in rivers or streams. Consequently, it’s best to avoid any strong currents in their aquarium Most power filters move water too quickly and I avoid them. I prefer to use air-driven sponge filters. I find them to be effective at maintaining a very healthy tank. If I have just a few fish and a decent plant cover I will sometimes use no filter or just a piece of rigid air tubing bubbling slowly to provide a little water mixing. If you avoid overfeeding very little filtration is required.
I love having live plants in my tanks and always have vegetation. In a ram tank, I keep the plantings to the background and sides to allow for an open central area. However, sometimes I’ll use a thick wall of plants to divide the tank in half with an open area at each end. If the wall of plants is thick enough you can sometimes raise two breeding pairs in the same tank. However, there needs to be enough of a plant wall that the fish don’t casually move from side to side. When done correctly, each pair will stick to its own side and there will be occasional territory skirmishes when fish explore through the wall of plants.
Floating plants can be a good option for getting the benefits that live plants provide. They provide shade to the tank which reduces algae growth. They also have many other benefits. Learn more with our Complete Guide to Plants for Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums.
Rams are omnivores, eating both vegetable and animal foods. They take any sort of small live food and will eat most prepared foods with few problems. Since they love to sift through the gravel seeking food I mostly use sinking pellets for them. Sometimes I’ll use the smallest size so they can eat individual pellets. Other times I’ll give them a slightly larger pellet and they spend hours pecking at it to break it into small bites. Since they focus their attention on the bottom, I rarely offer flake food as it sinks all over the tank, often in places the rams don’t visit. If you have a completely open bottom, or if you have a community of other fish, flake food might be a fine choice. Most commercial frozen foods are readily taken and provide a good supplement to dry foods.
Rams love almost any type of live food. I usually give mine a daily feeding of baby brine shrimp that I feed to all my dwarf cichlids. Although each shrimp is tiny, they will chase them down for an hour or longer. If you are careful not to overfeed the shrimp that the fish don’t find won’t become a problem. I also provide a daily feeding of micro worms which are really very tiny but settle into the sand where the rams filter them out as they sift through the substrate. Most other live foods are great but, since rams are bottom-feeding fish, mosquito larvae may not be noticed in a tank with floating plants.
Rams make great community fish but you must take care in selecting their tankmates. Take into account both the physical conditions of the aquarium and the characteristics of the companion fish when selecting the inhabitants of your tank. Since Rams do best at temperatures above 80°F there are many species that won’t thrive if kept with them. While many species might survive the warmer temps they won’t flourish and will likely have a shorter lifespan.
While temperature is the biggest issue, there are other considerations to take into account including:
- Rams stay near the bottom so the best tankmates will stay in the mid and upper water levels.
- Rams need open space so their tankmates should also be fine with open-water areas
- Although they are generally peaceful to other fishes, rams can be very aggressive to others of their species. In nature, they are found in large schools or breeding pairs. In the aquarium think groups or a pair.
- Parental Rams, like most cichlids, are fierce protectors of their fry and will often bully fishes much larger than themselves.
- Rams need slow water and don’t tolerate currents in the tank. Avoid species that prefer flowing water.
Rams and Apistogrammas
Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to keep rams and Apistos together. The biggest concern is water temperature While most Apistogrammas will tolerate water temps above 80° it’s not good for them and they will typically have a shortened life span. Species such as A. borellii that come from cooler waters may not tolerate the higher temps very well. However, most species can be kept at the lower end of the temperature for rams (80°F).
You need to account for the behavior differences if you try this combination. Apistogrammas prefer complex habitats filled with structure while rams want open water spaces so you need a tank that can be aquascaped to provide separate areas to meet each species’ needs. In non-breeding situations, it’s not too difficult to house rams and Apistos in the same tank but it’s really difficult if there is any breeding activity.
Rams and Discus
Rams and discus can be a great combination. They both thrive in water that is soft, acidic, and very warm. Rams are bottom-oriented and spend their time near the bottom while discus want open water in the mid to upper level. In a deep tank, it’s possible to have a small group or breeding pair. The rams generally ignore each other. Many discus owners perform frequent water changes which greatly benefit the rams. Discus owners need to understand that rams are naturally short-lived fish and they won’t have nearly the lifespan of the discus.
Rams and Angelfish
Keeping rams with angelfish is a combination that is often successful. Much like with discus, the rams will occupy the bottom of the tank with the angelfish in the mid to upper water levels. Angelfish do well in warm, soft, and acidic water so they are a match that way. There are generally few compatibility issues, especially if you raise them together from a small size. Both species are cichlids and that can mean aggression during spawning events so watch out for bullying if you have any spawns. I’ve seen individual angel fish become overly aggressive and attack dwarfs so always make sure you have places of cover.
Rams and Catfish
Many different catfish can be kept with blue rams but not every species is appropriate. Rams and catfish both live at the bottom of an aquarium and this can easily put them in competition for territory or food. Depending on the type of catfish you are using there are a few considerations to keep in mind.
Corydoras catfish range across South America and quite a few species easily tolerate the warmer water temps Rams require. However, some species originate from cooler waters and would not do well at temperatures above 80° F. You’ll need to look into the specific requirements of any species you consider using. Corydoras catfish have tough thick scales covering their bodies so they can withstand many attacks without any ill effects. They are bottom-feeding fish and share the floor of the tank with the rams. Unfortunately, they don’t recognize any ram territory areas. Ordinarily, the rams can temporarily chase them away from an area but during spawning they are relentless in pursuit of eggs or larval fry. Their tough “armor” allows them to ignore vicious attacks from the rams. Bottom line, Corydoras catfish are not compatible with spawning rams.
Since there are 170 described species and over 100 additional recognized forms of Corydoras I’m not going to discuss the species. However, a few generally available species that would do well are C. sterbai, C. haraldshcultzi, C. gossei, and C. weitzmani. You can learn all about Corydoras and other catfish at Planet Catfish.
Suckermouth catfish provide a huge variety of choices but many species are probably unsuitable. First, eliminate all of the ones that grow to a large size. Next, make sure they can tolerate the warmer temperature. Don’t even consider species that are known to be carnivorous. Remember that they are bottom dwellers so they will be in the same spaces as the rams. I’ve rarely kept this combination but you are probably best off with a bristlenose pleco or a small group of Otocinclus.
Many years ago I used to keep Corydoras with my dwarf cichlids. They worked well together for grow-out tanks where I wasn’t trying to do any breeding. I was also breeding some of the catfish and found that raising fry and juveniles together was usually pretty effective. However, as time passed, I found myself working around the catfish far too often and gradually eliminated them from my fishroom. I’ve kept Otocinclus cats many times and find a small group to be just fine in a tank. However, I never find them to be very effective for algae control and dwarfs do best in tanks of their own so I usually pass on catfish.
Rams and Tetras
Tetras and similar fish can be perfect companions to rams in a community aquarium. They generally stay in the middle and upper water levels and add color and movement to the tank. When selecting tetras make sure they can handle warmer temperatures as some species need cooler water. Fortunately, other tetras thrive in warm waters and are great with rams. If you have a group of mid-water fish make sure when feeding that enough food drops through them to the bottom where the rams feed. While these fast-swimming fish are great companions in a community tank you should avoid them if you are hoping to raise fry. They will easily raid the fry while the parents try to guard them.
Tetras – there are quite a few tetra species that will do well at 80° which is the lower end of the preferred temperature for rams. A great choice is the cardinal tetra which thrives in water above 80°F. Their native waters are soft, acidic, and warm – exactly what rams prefer. Neon tetras can be kept up to 80°F but I wouldn’t go any warmer. Rummynose tetras also love warm temps and should work fine. Many other tetras will work but check the suggested temperature range for any species you are considering.
Pencilfish – Most pencilfish will do fine up to 80° or 82° and they do best in soft acidic water. They are generally calmer than tetras and tend to stay higher in the tank. They have smaller mouths than tetras but sill still snack on ram fry if they have the opportunity.
Hatchetfish – if you have a tank that isn’t too tall but you still want a community then hatchetfish might be a good choice. They will tolerate water to 80° and spend all their time right at the surface leaving everything below as territory for the rams.
Rams and Shrimp
There are many attractive shrimp species that are available in the hobby and it might be possible to keep them with rams. The biggest problem is the rams eating the shrimp which is a natural reaction for them. There are a few things to try to reduce this. If possible start with the shrimp and add the rams after they are established. This makes the rams the strangers and often they will accept the shrimp as part of their new home. On the other hand, if you add shrimp to an established tank the rams will be looking at them as food – the same as any other food you drop in for them. If you need to add the shrimp to a tank consider doing it at night after the lights are off so they have a chance to find cover in the dark.
Cover is the next thing to think about. Shrimp thrive on Iive plants and they should be present in adequate quantity. Make sure your plantings have dense areas where it’s not easy for fish to swim. These areas can provide a sanctuary for the shrimp.
Large adult shrimp are more likely to survive that babies. Correspondingly, young fish are less likely to bother the shrimp. If you are starting with young rams they might learn to ignore the shrimp. Depending on the shrimp species, they might reproduce in your tank. This is a natural thing and sits really cool to have a colony of self-sustaining shrimp. With a breeding group, you might find that the smallest shrimp become food but once they reach a certain size they become safe.
Of course, as with all fishkeeping, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Any fish, any tank any time things can be completely opposite of what you’ve heard to read so always be prepared for the unexpected.
- Don’t mix rams with kribensis or other West African dwarfs as they don’t do well together.
- I recommend avoiding all livebearers as they typically require hard alkaline water.
- The same goes for all East African (Rift Lake) cichlids, and most Central American fish.
- Some gouramies may be possible but I avoid them except for dwarf species like the sparkling gourami.
- Goldfish should never be considered! Their temperature requirements are incompatible.
- Frogs and turtles should be avoided.
Breeding Blue Rams Mikrogeophagus ramirezi
Considerations for the Prospective Ram Breeder
Many hobbyists have a hard time successfully breeding blue rams. In truth, many people have spawned rams but few have successfully raised their fry. To succeed you first must meet the water demands of the fish – very warm, 80°F – 85°F, very soft, and acidic – pH 5.5 – 6.2. Many fish will spawn in water that does not meet these standards but the eggs usually do not develop properly and no fry are produced.
The next problem is often that the parent fish are not good parents. Many of the Rams sold in pet stores today are raised in large farms in Asia (even if they are called German Rams!) where they have been artificially reared for many generations. These fish are colorful but are often very poor parents. Asian rams rarely allow spawns to fully develop before they eat the eggs or larval fry. Whenever possible try to get wild rams as they are usually easier to spawn and make better parents but, they are much more demanding of water conditions.
Another problem that many people have with Rams is that they are not very effective at protecting their school of fry. It’s not an absence of desire, ferocity, or concern. Rather, they don’t have the ability to keep the fry in a tight school that will drop to the bottom on command the way Apistogrammas do. Instead, the fry form a large loose cloud swarming around the parents. The swarm can be very large because these small fish can produce spawns of two to three hundred fry. Within a day or two, it becomes impossible for the parents to guard the school as the fry become increasingly independent.
Preparing the Spawning Tank
For the best results, you should breed rams in an aquarium of their own. This gives them a peaceful, predator-free environment that provides the best chance for success. Since they will be the only occupants, you can set the tank up to best benefit the rams. What they really want is what we’ve already discussed, soft, acidic, warm water without strong currents. It’s best to use a well-seasoned aquarium if possible. A tank with an established growth of biofilm on the hard surfaces and plants is ideal for new fry. The best substrate is about 1/2″ of sand (swimming pool filter sand is widely available and works fine). Leave a significant portion of the bottom open as a large sandy clearing. place a flat rock or two for them to use for spawning sites. Rams are open spawners so there is no need to add caves.
There is no best aquarium size for breeding ram cichlids. It’s always safe to assume that larger is better than smaller. However, you probably don’t need to have too large a tank for a breeding pair. 15 and 20-gallon tanks should be adequate for a single pair but I’ve had success using smaller aquaria. With proper water management, a 10-gallon tank may be adequate for breeding a single pair of rams. Of course, a tank this size is far too small to grow the fry produced in a spawn.
There is no need to have the entire bottom of the tank open and bare. Depending on the tank and the fish, I use of live plants to define the open area. If possible, include places where a fish can escape and hide in case of aggression problems. I’ll often set up a tank with a central open area bordered by dense plantings that screen this area from a smaller one that I locate on either (or both) sides of the main clearing. This allows for a small open area for a shy fish but I’ve had pairs select the smaller area to spawn in.
Although their native waters are often fully exposed to direct sunlight, I prefer to shade the tank with a layer of floating plants. Watersprite is my favorite for this but there are other options. More about planted tanks can be found in our Guide to Planted Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums.
If you are setting up a new aquarium it’s safest to wait at least a few weeks for the tank to stabilize before adding fish. However, if you have an existing tank you can add rams right away.
Stocking the aquarium
Unless you have a very large aquarium that can accommodate multiple pairs of spawning rams, you should only keep your rams in pairs. There is often confusion about this as many hobbyists believe they can have a single male and several females. This is a bad idea. Ram cichlids form strong pair bonds and as soon as two fish pair they turn on any others that enter their territory.
The best way to get a compatible pair of rams is to purchase a small group of 5-8 young wild fish and grow them together until they form natural pairs. This approach assumes that you have the time, tank space, and access to wild-caught rams. If you are lacking these, you need to try to acquire a pair by purchasing two fish. Here are a few thoughts:
Sexing blue rams
It can often be difficult to tell the sex of a ram, especially if it is a young adult. There are some things to look for but none is 100% accurate. Over time, an experienced ram breeder can usually quickly tell a fish’s sex. But that is a skill that only comes through many observations. Here are some things to look for
- Look at the large black spot on the side of the fish. Males have a black spot that is solid black while females will often have iridescent blue spangles scattered on the spot or right on the outer edge of the spot. This is the first thing I look at and I find it to be very reliable most of the time.
- Females often have pink-to-reddish bellies and males usually don’t. Again, this is a sometimes indicator. A red-bellied ram is more likely to be female than male but this is not a fully reliable method.
- Male rams will often have extended fin membranes, especially in the dorsal and pectoral fins. It is often stated that a tall spike on the front of the dorsal fin means a male but some females get this same extension. Personally, I can usually tell the sex by looking at the fins but I can’t usually tell someone else exactly why.
- A very reliable sign of a female is an obvious blunt ovipositor dropping from the rear of her belly. Unfortunately, this tube usually only shows when spawning is near.
Selecting a pair
Depending on where you acquire your fish, you may be able to get sexing assistance from the seller. If you are dealing with a private breeder, it’s almost certain they will sell you a guaranteed M/F pair. If you are buying them from a pet store it’s a real crap shoot. Some sales staff are highly educated and will have no problem picking out both sexes. However, there are far too many sales staff who don’t have any idea and, unfortunately, too many of them talk like they know more than they do. Unless you are very confident in the shop employee I encourage you to take time to really observe the fish at the store.
Often, with careful observation, you’ll find that the rams are already forming pairs in the store’s tank. Almost every time I’ve been in a shop with a tank of adult rams I can find a pair that is compatible and wanting their own tank. If you can find a pair like this you’re off to a good start. Be sure to look carefully as there might be more than one pair forming in the tank.
If you don’t find a pair you need to try and determine the sex of the fish in the tank. Again, careful observation can tell you a lot. If there is one fish that is the most aggressive and dominates all others it’s likely a male. Any females in the tank would likely be chased by him but he will likely chase all other males more aggressively than any female. On the other hand, females in the tank might spar with each other. If you see two fishes sparring and the dominant male ignores them it’s likely two females. Check these behaviors against the diagnostic features (especially the black spot) and you can significantly improve your odds of getting a pair. If possible, tell the store about your plan to acquire a breeding pair and see if they will let you return a fish if your “pair” turns out to be two of the same sex.
You might be tempted to get a trio, that is one male and two females. This is a common practice with some Apistogramma species but rams are monogamous and the extra female will be viciously chased by both other fish if they move toward spawning. I strongly recommend keeping breeding rams in pairs.
It’s always best if you can start with a pair that has self-selected as they already want to be compatible. However, if you have a random pair they may or may not get along. The good news is that blue rams form strong pair bonds and once a pair spawns they will likely be compatible for life. Unfortunately, they might not be compatible from the start. It can be tough if you are putting the pair into an empty tank and they are not accustomed to each other. This will often lead to fighting and aggression. In these cases, make sure you have places where the weaker fish can hide. In an open tank with no cover, the dominant fish has nothing to distract it except the weaker fish.
Don’t hesitate to add temporary cover to the tank if needed. Sometimes you’ll need to add thick cover for the female (usually) to hide in until they work things out. Once they are getting along remove the temporary cover. Yarn spawning mops are easy to make and can be added quickly to any tank where aggression is a problem. With enough cover, the pair should begin to develop a relationship of sorts and you can begin removing any temporary cover you’ve added. This will change significantly as the female begins to prepare for spawning and, once they spawn, they should be mated for life as long as they are kept together.
Conditioning the pair
One of the most important aspects of conditioning the pair is to follow a feeding regime that encourages egg production and spawning. This essentially is the same diet advice we offer above for Feeding Ram Cichlids. High-quality sinking foods, frozen foods, and live food make a great combination. This is the perfect time to learn to hatch baby brine shrimp as you will need them to feed the fry. Daily or twice-a-day feedings of baby brine help to condition the pair.
Water changes play a big role in conditioning prospective spawners. Frequent water changes of up to 40% will provide the optimum environment for the fish. Sometimes a large water change will be the trigger that a pair needs to initiate pre-spawning behavior.
Spawning and egg care
When the pair begins their pre-spawning behavior they will select a location for the spawn. They prefer a flat solid surface and you can try to dictate the spawning location by placing a suitable rock where you want the spawn. If you use a sand substrate, try to bury the flat stone so it’s just at sand level. The pair will take turns clearing the site of every grain of sand. With a sand bottom, you may discover the pair has a mind of its own about where they want to spawn and they will dig out a depression in the sand by pushing sand outward with their wagging bodies until they create a shallow pit and reach the bottom of the tank. Sand or not, the pair will spend hours cleaning the location they have chosen. This site preparation may take several days
While site preparation is taking place, the female shows that she is approaching spawning time. Her belly area becomes obviously swollen and will likely have a reddish color that intensifies as spawning approaches. Her ovipositor will become obvious as it descends and just before spawning it will show as a blunt tube below her abdomen (the ovipositor will disappear soon after spawning.) The female begins to make trial passes over the spawning site until she is satisfied and begins to lay neatly placed rows of eggs. She makes pass after pass laying eggs until she has completed the spawn. A healthy adult female will typically lay 250 – 300 eggs. The male will never be far from her and moves in frequently to release his milt to fertilize the eggs.
When spawning is complete the pair will vigilantly guard the eggs. They will hover over them while watching for any potential threat. They will frequently pick at the eggs with their mouths and any infertile eggs will be eaten before they can fungus and affect the healthy eggs. After about 2 days the parents chew the larval fry from their eggs and move them by mouth to a new site they’ve prepared for the fry. This will often be another pit they have dug but it can be many other places. Once all the fry have been moved the parents care for them in their new location while taking frequent trips back to the spawning site looking for any eggs they may have missed. For the next few days, the parents may move the larval fry around and after another 3-4 days they become free-swimming and need to be fed.
Caring for Newly Hatched Blue Ram Fry
As you might expect, ram fry are quite small and you must be prepared to feed them with quality food that they find easy to eat. I approach this in a couple of ways. First, I try to make sure that I have a very well-established tank. This typically means that it has a good growth of algae and bio-film on many surfaces. This provides a rich source of live microbes, more of which are found on the driftwood and plants that I stock the tank with. If you can provide these rich surfaces for the babies to graze on it will really jump-start their growth.
The first supplemental food I provide is live micro worms. These tiny worms are the perfect size for the baby Rams. They eat them easily and they are a great food source as uneaten worms sink to the bottom and live for hours until they are consumed. After just a couple of days, the fry will grow enough to take newly hatched brine shrimp and growth is quick after that. Of course, as with any fry, you must make sure to provide frequent water changes combined with good food.
Raising Ram Fry to Adults
Once the fry are several days free-swimming you will notice the parents beginning to lose control of the school and there will be babies everywhere in the tank. At this point, I usually either remove the parents and raise the fry alone in the tank or remove some of the fry into another tank that’s been prepared to receive them. It’s not uncommon for parents to eat their fry after tending them for a few days and removal takes away this problem. The fry are pretty easy to raise with newly hatched brine shrimp and micro worms as perfect foods.
If you don’t have access to live food you can use commercial fry foods or very fine powdered foods. For both of these, you have to make sure the food gets to the fry. Powdered flake food will usually float for quite some time before it sinks. If using powdered flake you should probably mix a tiny pinch with some water to make a suspension. You can then use a pipette or a piece of airline tubing to deliver the food to the fry. It’s much more difficult to raise fry on dry foods and you will likely experience large losses. Pay very careful attention so that you don’t end up with a layer of uneaten food on the bottom. If you can, add snails to the tank and do plenty of water changes.
If you are feeding live food at some point you’ll want to add dry food into the diet. You can add flake or other prepared food as described above. To begin just add tiny amounts as a supplement to your live foods. As the fish begin to recognize and eat the dried food you can make it a larger component of the diet. It’s best to provide several small feedings each day. As the fry become juveniles, you can wean them off live food completely and only feed them prepared foods. Personally, I always include at least one meal a day of live food.
Other than providing nutritious food, you need to make sure the growing fry have excellent water conditions. The several hundred fry seem insignificant when they first emerge but after a few weeks, they are hundreds of tiny fish all producing waste into the water. The more water changes you do the better. If I’m looking for optimal growth I try to do a 40 – 60% change every day.
Continue with good food and water and at about 4 months they will be young adults beginning to pair up. By this time you’ll be well aware, that trying to raise the hundreds of fry that can be produced in a spawn requires more and larger aquariums to move the growing fry into. It’s best to think ahead when you have a successful spawn. Besides the space requirements for raising all the fry you will also need to have a plan for them as adults. Don’t expect the local pet store to buy all your stock. High-quality rams are always in demand and you may find a local shop to take them in trade. However, it’s possible to outproduce local demand
Rams are typical cichlids and as such, they are all unique individuals. Some make excellent and caring parents that will raise successive batches of fry while others never get the hang of parenting and repeatedly eat their eggs. If you have a pair that just won’t raise their fry you must decide if you want to try and artificially hatch the eggs. This can be a great way to ensure that you get fry but lacks the charm of a breeding pair. Your other option is to break up the pair and try to introduce a new partner. While Rams form fairly strong pair bonds it is possible to force a pairing. However, if you want to do this I suggest that you give the fish several weeks of separation before you introduce the prospective new mate.
A couple of final suggestions. If you want to parent-raise the fish you really need to keep them in a species tank with no other fish of any sort. The tiny ram fry are eagerly eaten by almost every other fish and it is very rare for any fry to survive in a mixed species tank.
Rams can be slow to spawn. If your fish just don’t seem to want to spawn try giving them high-quality live food for several weeks followed by a large water change and raising the temperature a couple of degrees. This will often stimulate spawning.
One nice thing for the average home breeder of this fish is that there is usually a steady demand for Rams at the local fish store. This means that you can usually trade some of your fish and they will be happy to take them. Although you will never make much of a profit it is nice to have an outlet for your fish.
Buying Mikrogeophagus ramirezi
Ram cichlids are probably the easiest dwarf cichlid to purchase. Most pet stores carry them at least part of the time. I frequently see them in chain stores as well. There is usually no telling what the source is for these fish although good independent pet stores can usually provide better info. It’s easy to purchase rams online from a wide variety of sources and if you are looking for an uncommon color form this will be your best choice. We have some specific suggestions for Buying Dwarf Cichlids Online.
In summary, there is a good reason why blue rams are one of the all-time favorite dwarf cichlids. They are beautiful, they make great community fish, they get along with most other fish and they present an interesting breeding challenge to the more advanced hobbyist. If you’ve never kept these gems and can meet their water demands give them a try and if you are an experienced dwarf cichlid keeper who considers them to be a beginner’s fish take another look. Rams are a great addition to any fish room.
Frequently Asked Questions
There is really no difference at all. At one time there was a very specific ram type that was imported from Europe that was called the German blue ram. Over time the name German was added to other rams and today the name German blue ram is commonly used for any ram.
Blue rams are not a beginner’s fish but they aren’t too hard to keep if you can provide them with the environment they require. Their water needs to be soft, acidic, and warm (at least 80°F) without strong currents. Their tankmates need to be peaceful and not too big and you need to start with healthy fish. Under these conditions, rams are not too difficult to keep.
Tankmates for rams include discus and angelfish, many tetra species, and many catfish species. Avoid species that need hard alkaline water like African and Central American cichlids, many livebearers, and goldfish.
It’s best to keep rams as a pair or as a group. A compatible male/female pair will be aggressive toward other rams, especially if they breed. If you have just a few rams together a pair will quickly turn on the others. If you keep a group of 6-8 or more they will usually spread the aggression among all the fish.
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
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.