Swimming With Cichlids | Mikolji

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Swimming With Cichlids

By Ivan Mikolji / 2008

Most people that get to know me ask how many aquariums I have. My immediate answer is, “I don’t have any; I threw them all away.” As they normally get perplexed with my answer, I follow by saying… “The rivers are my new aquariums.” 
Having the chance or taking the time to swim with freshwater fish in their natural habitats is very fascinating. To some extent, it’s addicting. Once I get back from an expedition and return to my civilized routine I reminisce the tranquil time in nature and I get the urge to get back on the road to discover new locations. 
ABOVE: Mesonauta egregius swim majestically in the water. They seem to slide and float magically through the water, without moving their fins. I have always compared the way they swim with the way Pterophyllum altum swim.
There are places and rivers that are so incredibly beautiful underwater, that I could repeatedly go to the same spot and not get bored being there day after day. Being out in these aquatic biotopes, and forgetting about the daily routine, takes me to the level in which I try to take a deeper look into how everything works in nature. The instant you get into a crystal clear river and start snorkeling around, you can actually see how cichlids have evolved to have their own daily routine in the ecosystem.
ABOVE: In nature it is very rare to see a half back genetic strain. The half black cichlid in this picture which to me seems like an Acaronia nassa shares the picture with a Hypselecara coryphaenoides (middle, Chocolate cichlid), Crenicichla sp.(Right, Pike cichlid) and a Cichlasoma sp. or Laetacara sp. (Bottom left).
You see pike cichlids taking care of their fry, taking them for a swim around their territories. Protecting them nonstop; males always up front scouting the perimeter in very bright colors, female always close to the ground near the fry as a back up soldier. The Apistogramma display their fins to another male which has come too close to his female. 
ABOVE: This was the third time I had observed severus fighting, not only in this specific river where the picture was taken, but in other rivers around Venezuela. The fights can last up to 10 minutes.
Juvenile severus clamp their mouths together trying to get a higher rank than his rival. The Geophagus and Satanoperca are always schooling, gulping up sand and sifting it in their mouths, trying to separate and eat the organic matter which is what their very specialized food consist of in nature; and eliminating the rest of the clean sand through the back part of their operculum (gill plates).
ABOVE: Cichla orinocensis is one of the most common species of Cichla in Venezuela. The color of their spots varies depending on their location. When they have yellow spots, they come from north of the Orinoco River. When they have blue spots, they come from south of the Orinoco River.
Cichla, commonly called Peacock Bass, are always still, in mid water, waiting for the opportunity to dart at lightning speed at any fish which he thinks is off guard. Cichlids also seem to know their territories very well and the best place to see this is at the moricha habitats.
ABOVE: A typical morichal habitat. The morichal name comes from the moriche Palm which is a palm that grows and thrives only where its roots can be underwater. These morichales are the best place to explore for cichlids year round because they normally don’t dry out in the dry season and they contain rare cichlids like Apistogramma guttata and Satanoperca mapiritensis.
In the morichal habitats, the river banks are full of millions of Moriche Palm roots which are around 3/8 to ¼ inch in diameter. These roots form thousands of crevices and tunnels. Cichlids love to go in and out of these crevices and seem to know them by heart. They run for shelter in one direction into their tangled root world and come back out through another side. They take a long look at you, seeming curious, and hide again.
ABOVE: The Apistogramma sp. (Breitbinden) still has not been scientifically described. The biggest one I saw was around 8 cm. long. I have only seen them breeding in the rainy season, which, is around June.
Although now, I can see and try to recreate all of this in an aquarium, I always miss the relaxed state that I get into, after looking at them for hours in a weightless floating environment. Staring at an aquarium at home does not have the live surround effect of mosquitoes, gnats, and horseflies and of course, the soaking wet effect! 
ABOVE: A Hypselecara coryphaenoides (Chocolate cichlid) poses motionless in a vertical position for the picture while a school of Paracheirodon axelrodi swim in front of the camera. Chocolate cichlids get into this motionless vertical position when they feel threatened, this camouflages them pretty well when they are in between aquatic plants but I don’t think anybody taught him that. In the wild, cardinal tetras seem to be bottom dwellers compared to Hemigrammus stictus (top) which are always schooling near the surface.
Cichlids are present in most Venezuelan rivers. Their geographical locations vary as with most other fishes and animals, from species to species and from one type of aquatic biotope to another. The readings I have taken go from very hard brackish waters with a Ph of 8.4 for Caquetaia kraussii to very soft acidic waters with a Ph 5.6 for Apistogramma guttata. Temperature wise, the extremes would be 24 Celsius (75.2 Fahrenheit) for Aequidens pulcher and up to 31 Celsius (87.8 Fahrenheit) for Apistogramma hoignei. Some species are more widespread than others which have very specific habitats mostly due to natural barriers, which is a long subject to get into at this time. Most cichlids are slow moving fish which don’t voluntarily migrate. They try to set or make a territory of their own and try to make their life around that territory. They try to pair off, lay their eggs, and take care of their fry in the same spot for a lifetime.
ABOVE: Mesonauta insignis is always a shy fish, they are always found near the surface of the water trying to hide in the aquatic plants. Their camouflage pattern on their bodies intensifies under stress. I have seen them schooling at all ages and only separating in pairs when the mating season begins.
ABOVE: Dicrossus maculatus are not as common in the wild as people may think. It’s also very rare to see them in large or adult sizes.
ABOVE: This picture was taken in the flooded areas of the Apure State. Satanoperca mapiritensis share their habitat with Satanoperca daemon, Crenicichla regani. These flooded areas completely dry up in the dry season. If the fish do not escape fast enough into the main rivers when the plains start to dry, they get stuck in puddles and die.
When I have returned to a river after a year or so, I have found a pair of cichlids with a distinctive body mark in the same spot taking care of a new batch of fry. Even when a river starts drying out in the dry season, cichlids are one of the last to leave and normally are some of the ones that get stranded in dry puddles victims of their denial to leave the area. Cichlids migrate from an area only in extraordinary conditions as when a river dries, a stronger male moves in the area, or lack of food or females / males. 
ABOVE: I was amazed when I found Mikrogeophagus ramirezi in this morichal in the Monagas State which is near the Orinoco River Delta in Venezuela. They normally come from The Apure State which is 800 kilometers west. Seeing adult rams in nature has always been a challenge. I still don’t know why you can see thousands of juveniles and no adults in the wild, but at last, we found a few adults, but… 800 kilometers from where they were supposed to be.
ABOVE: The Laetacara fulvipinnis was recently described in 2007. The orange color on the tips of the dorsal fin, yellowish back body and bluefish head make it a dream aquarium fish.
A very good cichlid breeder in Venezuela once told me… “I love cichlids the most; they are the intelligent fish.” To some point his remark is very true and this is only one of the many little details that make cichlids so fascinating.
This article has been published at:
• Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine - July 2008

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