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Greater Seattle Aquarium Society

Spawning the Panda Apisto

by Dave Sanford
January 1997

photo and sketch by Erik Olson

It was at the International Cichlid Conference I in Orlando that I first laid eyes on Apistogramma nijsseni (Kullander 1979). No one that I knew had ever seen this fish and we all wanted it badly. It’s popularity was confirmed by the $130 price that the single pair commanded at the big cichlid auction. Several of us apistophiles returned home wishing and dreaming about being able to obtain and spawn this most glorious dwarf cichlid.

Most female Apistogramma are eye-catching when in breeding dress but A. nijsseni maintain the blazing yellow at all times. Sooty black provices a contrast with a large spot on the gill vocer extending to the eye. A small stripe extends up from the eye giving it camoflauge. The sides and caudal peduncle both sport a blotch, as well as the first 3-4 dorsal rays. The anterior ventral fins are also black. Thus, the nickname Panda apisto is very apt. A light red band near the edge of the tail fin mimics the brilliant one of the male. Quite a sight for a two-inch fish!

Stocky is the word that best describes males. Three inches is the maximum size for these hefty dwarfs. Yellow covers the lower body and continues into the tail and ventral fins. Light blue to lavender is the main body coloration. The round caudal fin has a narrow red-orange band, edged in black.

The natural habitat in the rainforests of eastern Peru is small, shallow blackwater streams with only a slight current (Linke and Staeck). The pH in these waters is 5.0 to 5.5, created by the submerged wood and leaf litter. The combination of low pH and lack of light allow for very few submerged plants.

One year later, I was in San Fransisco for the Pacific Coast Cichlid Conference, excited because I had gotten word that a local member would be offering nijsseni at the auction. My buddy and I managed to obtain five pairs which we carefully hand-carried on the plane back to Seattle. I had set them up just like I always do for A. cacatuoides in a 5-gallon tank. They ate well, grew, and died in my tanks without ever reproducing. My fellow fanatic had a similar experience using 10-gallon tanks. Discouraged and bummed out, I resigned myself to breeding less demanding and cheaper fish.

With renewed enthusiasm, some wheeling and dealing, and some help from fishy friends, I once again took the A. nijsseni challenge. The new pair was placed into a 10-gallon tank with a sponge filter, several spawning caves, and an attractive piece of bogwood covered with Java fern. A large clump of Java moss provided cover above the caves. Duckweed served as a light reducing filter. Some blackwater extract was used to recreate their natural habitat. Heavy feedings of live foods such as Daphnia and mosquito larvae were consumed with gusto. The fish looked terrific. Days were spent right up near the front glass of the tank searching for food. The female seemed intrerested in the male, but the flirtation was not reciprocated. First I tried massive water changes. No result. Then the pH was lowered with a biphosphate product. No action. Citric acid came next with no change. I was beginning to fear that my beautiful pair would suffer the same fate as the previous pairs. An ad in a national fish magazine caught my eye. This new product claimed to have just the right additives to recreate the natural habitat from several major tropical fish locations; they called it Waters of the World. In desparation, I decided to give it a try, so I purchased a bottle of the South American formula. It was time go for broke, spawn or die. I indended to add a capful to the tank each day until something happened. Day by day the water became darker and the pH dropped. When the Java fern melted down I knew that the chemicals were having some effect. After the seventh day the female stopped appearing to beg for food, I thought perhaps it’s a good sign. Five days later I saw the female nervously guarding a small band of fry as they picked through the Java moss. Excited, but uncertain about what to do next. Should the male be removed? Should the pH be raised slowly with small water changes? Should the female be left to brood the fry? After a few futile attempts to catch the male without disturbing the female, I gave up. Baby brine shrimp were offered and accepted. There seemed to be less fry each day until there were just a few left. At this point I should have removed the young, but I didn’t and they also disappeared. A few days later a large cloud of fry was discovered following the female. This time I decided to leave them alone. Microworms were fed for the first week and baby brine shrimp also. So far they are doing great. I think that there is a learning curve for both the fish and the aquarist. Hopefully we both have the routine worked out and can look forward to many future generations of this totally cool apisto.

Dave Sanford, a.k.a. the Fishman, has an entire room in his house dedicated to raising cichlids, killifish, and herps. Besides A. nijsseni and others, he is also succesfully breeding A. pandurini, A. cacatuoides, and Pelvicachromis taeniatus.