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'Spawning' Thorichthys sp. “Blue Mixteco”

by Diane Brown

When I got back into fishkeeping in 2001, I started with Endler’s livebearers, who lived up to their nickname of “Endless livebearers.  I later acquired some killies, and found that fry of Fundulopanchax gardneri appeared at irregular intervals in my planted tanks without any deliberate intervention on my part.  While I enjoyed watching their courting behaviors, I decided I wanted to watch some real fish parenting—I wanted to try some cichlids.  I started with a group of 8 Etroplus maculatus, the orange chromide, but despite my attempts to give them a well-planted brackish tank with plenty of cover and potential spawning sites, these gentle golden fish did nothing except go belly up after a year and a half, after what I suspect was an end-of-tank CO2 dump that barely distressed any of my other fish in tanks on the same CO2 system. 

I wanted to try again, with small, mild-mannered strictly freshwater fish this time, and obtained a group of Laetecara dorsigerus fry.  While they were still in a quarantine tank in the fall of 2003, Rusty Wessel came to a MASI meeting to talk about collecting Central American cichlids.  I was attracted by the Thorichthys sp. “Blue mixteco”, and after verifying that they did not grow larger than four inches, were relatively mild-mannered, and could be kept with plants, I bid on a bag of six fry….thinking all the while that I was nuts to get more cichlids when I had just gotten the dorsigers.  But while the dorsigers have thrived, indeed, gotten quite large and plump, they have never attempted to spawn.  The Thorichthys, on the other hand, have proven quite eager to spawn. 

When I brought them home, the Thorichthys fry were about an inch long and very lively.  They made themselves right at home in a 29G heavily planted tank and grew quickly.  (Tank parameters: (T 78 degrees and up to mid-80s in the summer, pH neutral, CO2 injected, soft St. Louis tap water dechlorinated with thiosulfate alone.)  Within 3 months of generous feeding with a variety of dried, frozen, and live food twice daily, one was about three times the size of the rest of them, and Big Fish remained the largest, most dominant fish in the tank thereafter. 

One evening that next summer, when Big Fish was four inches long and the rest were about 3 inches long, I spotted Big Fish and one other paired up and guarding a patch of dozens to a couple of hundred translucent 1-2 mm eggs. The eggs were attached to the sheet of cork bulletin board material covering the back wall of the tank. (put there as a support for plants, to increase the plantable surface area of the tank, and happily appropriated as a spawning substrate by the thorichthys).  The eggs gradually disappeared over the next 48hrs and no wigglers or fry were seen, despite faithful guarding of the spawning site by both parents, and frequent chases of the other fish in the tank (the other thorichthys, six zebra loaches, and a pair of fundulopanchax gardneri).  I suspected the snails and loaches were getting at them at night.  The loaches were evicted, but the snails remained.  No further paired behavior was seen, and Big Fish seemed to chase the others around equally.

A month of two later, more eggs appeared, this time guarded only by Big Fish. 



I left the lights on 24/7 and the egg patch remained intact, but over the next three days they turned white and disappeared.


After another pair of infertile spawns, I was suspected I might have only females.  The females of this species all have black spots in their dorsal fins, and I saw those in all the thorichthys in the tank.  I was depressed enough to calculate the odds of 6/6 fry being female:  assuming a 50:50 sex distribution, you have 50:50 shot of a pair with two fry, 75:25 with three, 87.5:12.5 for four, 93.75:6.25 for five, and 96.875:3.125 for six.  And I heard rumors that other people raising these fish were seeing male-skewed sex ratios, making the odds further stacked against getting a batch of six females.

However, when trimming and cleaning the tank for the MASI fish room tour in September, I saw that the smallest fish in the tank didn’t seem to have the dorsal spots.  His fins were shredded, he had one damaged eye, and I could hardly blame him for staying so well hidden I’d not realized he was there.  Any time he came out he was chased mercilessly by whichever female was nearest.   I removed him to an empty 29G tank where his only companions were a pair of Endlers, and he grew and his fins filled out rapidly.  After a few months, he was as big as Big Fish, and I was ready to reintroduce him to the girls.

I first put a divider in his tank and put Big Fish on the other side. 

Divider in place

There was little flaring of gills or rushing at the divider, so I planned to remove it the next evening when I did my water changes—so I could watch closely and return it in case of trouble.  But they didn’t wait for me; the next day there were a batch of eggs laid on the cork wall right next to the divider, Eggs on Cork

Big Fish was guarding, and the male, in dark striped breeding garb, was digging troughs all over his side of the tank.


These eggs were again infertile, however, and were gone by the fourth day. 

Eggs on Cork

I waited a couple of days, removed the barrier, and watched carefully.  Within an hour they’d figured out the barrier was gone, and the male was chasing Big Fish aggressively around the tank. 

I did not want to return the big female to her original tank, leaving the male alone again—he’d shown he was ready to spawn with somebody--so I put him back in the other tank instead, with the four smaller females.  I hoped that forcing him to be the newcomer to an established tank, and having four others in that tank, would dilute his aggression towards any one fish.

By the next morning, he had already paired off with the smallest female in the tank. 
In spawning dress

Emboldened by having the male at her back she proceeded to establish herself as the boss.  The pair injured one of the others badly enough that I removed her to a hospital tank for a few days, and over the next two days I moved the remaining females out to share the second tank with the big female (they since found a new home, where Big Fish has continued to lay infertile spawns).

The pair were displaying to each other, swimming parallel with gills flaring, bright red throats flashing, black vertical stripes darkened, and their blue spots and fin stripes were sparklingly brilliant.  They'd also do the same thing when head to tail, but never head to head in an aggressive way, and never chasing one after the other.   And after there were no other fish left to chase (they essentially ignore the pair of fundulopanchax gardneri who share the tank, who are smart enough to stay away from the bigger cichlids without prompting), the pair spent most of their time together. About four days after they paired up, I came home to find Little Fish  guarding eggs.


The day after spawning the eggs looked a little different--they were developing.  After so many batches of infertile, unchanging eggs (well, at least until they turned white and fungused!) even this little difference was exciting.  The next morning I was looking closely at the tank while feeding and saw a tiny fish swimming, but then I looked again at the unhatched eggs, and realized I was looking at a little gardneri that had managed to hatch and grow up while the tank was nearly empty and the larger fish were otherwise preoccupied.

On the evening of the third day I found wigglers, which had been moved a few inches over into a clump of java fern rootlets. They still looked more like eggs than fish, with bodies like ghostly tails on the eggs. The female seemed to spend a lot of time going from the gravel to the rootlets, perhaps picking up fallen fry and moving them back up to the roots.  The male took turns guarding while the female fed, and rearranged the aquascaping when she was on duty—digging pits, uprooting plants, and resisting my occasional attempts to replant and restore order.

small wigglers

eggs to wigglers

More like fish than egg

By day four after hatching they were genuine wigglers--wriggling like crazy on their strands of roots.  And the male began to take a more active role--no longer hiding out in the shadows of the java fern or digging puts, but spending more time with the female and the wigglers.  And he came up to the glass—gills flaring and bright red throat puffed out--to challenge me when I first walked into the room.  That evening there were fewer wigglers visible, and the next day there were none.

The female continued to guard the site for another day before giving up.  She and the male continued to display to each other, however, and 10 days after the first spawn there was a new batch of eggs at the original site, and the female was back on guard.

New Eggs

The male would greedily eat when I fed the gardneri at the other end of the tank.  The female, however, was so determined not to eat that a wiggly piece of fresh redworm dropped carefully right in front her of was not eaten, but instead picked up and spit out a distance away, presumably to keep a potential threat from her eggs.  That's dedication!

The wigglers hatched again on the third day after laying.  By the third day after hatching they looked about equal parts fish and yolk sac.  The female was now back to eating; she and the male took turn foraging on the other side of the tank where I am dropped bloodworms and grindals.  The parents' cooperation seemed much smoother this time around, and this time the group of wigglers wasn’t visibly shrinking each day.  I placed a sponge over the filter intake and kept it there until the fry were about 1 cm long.

Equal Parts Fish and Yolk

I was taking pictures of the brood daily, and just after one photo session, when I went back to admire the wigglers again, they were GONE.  Every last one was missing.  The female was still brooding in the same place, the male was hiding behind the java fern, the gardneri were nowwhere to be seen.  I looked closely at the gravel pit in front of the female, no wigglers.  Then I saw a collection of mulm just at the base of the tank wall, right below the spot where they'd been hung in the roots, and realized the mulm was moving and had eyes--it was the wigglers.  The female had moved them off the cork wall.  And they remained there for the next two days. 


Naturally they waited until I left town for the weekend before becoming free-swimming.  My caretaker fed the adults but the fry were left to graze on infusoria until I returned.   The parents traveled the perimeter of the cloud of fry to grab the stray fry, often with a mouthful of gravel and debris, carry it back to the main group, and spit out the fry where they belong.  They were kept quite busy doing this, and seemed to have thoroughly intimidated the gardneri that shared the tank--I didn’t see them stray below the top inch of the tank on the far side from where the fry were headquartered.   The fry, now about 5mm long, eagerly accepted freeze-dried cyclop-eeze or tetra fry bites powder each morning and brine shrimp nauplii and microworms each evening. 


Fry up close


Fry above

fry profile

I was treated to this sort of threat display (here the male with his throat extended) several times a day if I ventured too close--and anywhere within 6-8 feet was too close, by their reckoning:


A month after spawning, the 1 cm fry were taking small grindal worms, crushed flake food, and Hikari micro pellets in addition to the cyclop-eeze and brine nauplii.

Fry With Parent

Swimming Fry

Cloud O'Fry

About six weeks after spawning, the adults gradually stopped overtly guarding the fry, and spent more time in hiding.  I don’t know whether they were spawning again (but not in the usual place) or just trying to find some peace and quiet, but they were still displaying to each other when they did come out.  And after a week or ten days of that, the male began to chase the female aggressively—no more parallel displays—and I removed her from the tank to prevent injury.  He seemed to ignore the fry, but I suspected that the problem may have been overcrowding, as the 200+ fry, now 1 1/2-2 1/2 cm long, quite filled the tank.  They were still a little small, yet, to sex out clearly, as only a few of the largest were starting to show a shadow of a possible female dorsal marking. 

When they had just turned 60 days old (the minimum for BAP), it was fish rodeo time.  I rounded up the young 'uns for the MASI auction, and by draining the tank completely--carefully herding the fry towards the last puddle as I drained it to below the level of the gravel--I thought I'd gotten them all.  I bagged up about 200 fry altogether.  Then I refilled the tank, put the male back in, and was astonished to see 5 fry appear out of nowhere.  Were they hiding in the gravel?  Hiding in the plant roots on the tank wall?  The tank was mostly empty for at least half an hour before it was refilled, so their survival was quite a feat.  Those fry survived and prospered, but unfortunately their parents relationship came to a bad end. 

A few days later I put the female back into the tank, thinking the adults would be be ready to pair off again.  At first they ignored each other, then the male chased her a little, but nothing that seemed particularly aggressive.  The following evening when I came home from work, however, I found her in distress, barely swimming, and though I got her isolated in a hospital tank, she did not survive. 

I gave away the male and remaining females to a friend with more space, and concentrated instead on raising the next generation.  It was quite an adventure, being able to experience typical cichlid spawning behavior without needing a large tank. And unlike the chromides and dorsigers, who seemed to prefer hiding to spawning, these fish were so eager to spawn they’d do it repeatedly without a partner.  While it wa not easy pairing them up, and the pairings were sometimes violent, I was able to watch them spawn and raise the fry in plain sight, in my living room, allowing me and any guests to track every step of the process.  What more could a beginning cichlidiot ask for?

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