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  • Crenicichla at ACA'94
    Conversations with Frank Warzel

    Vinny Kutty

    [Originally published in ACARA, Journal of the South American Cichlid Study Group. Vol.1 No. 4 (1994)]

    I'm writing this a couple of weeks after my return from ACA-94 in San Antonio, Texas. I wasn't planning on attending until they announced Frank Warzel as one of the speakers. I just HAD to hear his talk. So the time came and off to Texas I went. Frank Warzel and his travel companion Ad Konings almost didn't make it in time for their talks, thanks to tornadoes and storms over Kansas and Oklahoma. I noticed a lot of SACSG members missing, so I thought I'd share some facts on Crenicichla species.

    I had no idea whom to expect when David Herlong introduced Frank Warzel. I thought I might find a Loisellian personality but instead met a moustached, pony-tailed, Jean-clad thirtysomething guy who turned out to be the highlight of my stay in San Antonio. Frank is a modest, easy-going, incredibly knowledgeable man who works as a mechanic (meshaneek as he put it), repairing motorbikes and such in Mainz, just outside Frankfurt.

    The following are notes from his talk entitled "A Systematic Survey of the genus Crenicichla." [Comments made after the talk and information divulged by Warzel over Lone Star beers are in braces]

    Paragraphs containing my comments on Frank's slides and my personal observations are in Italics.

    The Genus Crenicichla

    Crenicichla are the most species-rich genus of South American cichlids, with about 75 species known to science. [Almost 40 species await formal description.] These fish are found in most waters east of the Andes. The presence of Crenicichla in Patagonia extends the range of cichlids almost 1000 miles.

    Kullander's redescription of C. lacustris from Puerto Madryn in Southern Argentina in 1981 extends the range of the cichlid family from tropical and subtropical to include temperate regions. To put this in perspective, Puerto Madryn is as far from the equator as New York or Cleveland is! Of course, this is a strictly coastal species where the temperatures are moderated by warm ocean currents. Kullander was quite concerned about the introduction of this species into the aquarium hobby. The potential for accidental introduction into colder North American and European waters would be environmentally disastrous.

    Addendum from 1998: There may have been an error in the identification of the fish from Puerto Mardyn. At this point, Crenicichla scotti from Argentina may well be the southernmost representative of the genus. This is still as far south as Atlanta, Georgia is north of the equator! I have this fish and it is quite happy in a tank without a heater.

    If more than one species is kept in an aquarium, the fish should be the same size but possess different color pattern. Pairs are normally very peaceful together and pair formation is aided by large tanks. [Warzel has six tanks in the 125-gal. range and some smaller ones.]

    I've had peaceful pairs in standard 55-gal. tanks but these weren't the large lugubris-types.

    All known Crenicichla are monogamous and produce between 50 and 1000 eggs.

    Information on care and breeding of individual species was not provided during the talk since the subject was 'systematic survey,' but in our conversations, Warzel did mention that Crenicichla of the strigata group need better water than species of the other complexes. I mentioned the frequent occurrences of hole-in-the-head in Crenicichla sp. Xingu 1 that many others and I had been noticing and he said it was due to poor water quality and that he'd noticed it in Germany too. Phone conversations with Jeff Cardwell a few months back revealed that his fish had the problem despite very low dissolved nitrates. Could low oxygen or trace element deficiencies be the cause? As a paranoid preventative measure, I've started dosing my tanks with trace elements and hydrogen peroxide [See 'Enjoying Cichlids' Edited by Ad Konings.] Warzel relies mostly on frozen foods, especially frozen Gambusia! Every body of water around here (Tampa,Florida) is teeming with Gambusia but nobody seems to be selling the convenient frozen ones.

    Crenicichla can be divided into five different groups. (These groups were proposed in part by Dutch ichthyologist Alex Ploeg who unfortunately is no longer in the business of Crenicichline nomenclature; he's pursuing other endeavors).

    [Differences in opinion as to the placement of some species in some groups exist between Warzel and Ploeg. - Ed.]

    The Saxatilis Group

    The first group is named after Crenicichla saxatilis from Dutch Guyana (Surinam). The group contains 27 known species, mostly from Amazonian tributaries. Their range extends from Uruguay in the south to the island of Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela.

    In ACARA Vol. 1 No. 1 and Vol. 1 No. 2, I'd mentioned a C. sp. aff. saxatilis in my articles; I presented slides of these and other cichlids at the 1994 Annual SACSG meeting. Warzel identified them for me as C. frenata. The only published photograph of this species is in Alex Ploeg's thesis. This fish and our common Blue Acara ('Aequidens' pulcher) were both described by Gill in 1858 and their type locality is Trinidad. C. frenata can be distinguished from other saxatilines by the parallel white line sandwiching a black line that runs from the eye to the shoulder spot; a characteristic of the females. C. frenata has been coming in to retailers and wholesalers with C. sp. "Bellyslider"; the species falsely known as C. sedentaria in North America. ( I admit to being partly responsible for this confusion.) The real C. sedentaria is what is pictured in Staeck and Linke (1985) as C. sp. Rio Chinipo. C. sp."Bellyslider" hails from the Rio Meta drainage, Colombia and C. sedentaria from central Peru but just because C. frenata is shipped to retailers with the Bellyslider doesn't mean it is also Colombian.

    The males of this group have the largest white spangles of any Pikes; most coastal forms of this complex have white spangles (usually on males only). These fishes don't get bigger than 10 inches and most have a black spot behind the gill cover, often surrounded by an irregular, variable white ring. Most are quite colorful but C. lucius is often bland. Females are smaller, prettier and possess a white band in the dorsal fin. In some species, the females have white spots instead of a white band. Species with white spots in the dorsal fin are typically from the Orinoco drainage.

    In this group, distinguishing between the sexes is easier than distinguishing between species.

    C. albopunctata females from the Guyanas possess 2-4 distinct white-ringed spots on the dorsal fin. Southern species like C. lepidota from Paraguay are higher built and stockier.

    Kullander proposed the lepidota-group, with about half a dozen species in 1982 in one of his earliest Pike cichlid papers. These fish in my opinion, need their own subgroup thanks to their large scales, large head, lower meristics, thick post-orbital stripe, and overall chunky look. Ploeg does not feel these distinctions to be significant. A picture of another member of this group can be seen in Wayne Leibel's 'A Fishkeepers Guide to South American Cichlids' on pages 32-33. This photograph (a John O'Malley photo identified as C. sp. Dwarf Pike) matches many elements of C. britskii's description. C. britskii is probably the smallest member of the lepidota group.

    The Lacustris Group

    This group of Crenicichla is named after C. lacustris. These fish have no shoulder spot and have an oblique stripe under the eye.

    These fish are more elongated than saxatilines. Of course, there are exceptions to the stripe-under-the eye- rule: some C. vittata and C. celidochilus don't have it. I have an unidentified species (probably C. lacustris, from near the town of Campos; see Leibel 1994, p.72 for a John O'Malley photo of this fish) with a suborbital stripe and the female has a distinct round black ocelli on the dorsal fin. This fish refused to eat pellets for 35 days in my tank and after this starvation period, it went on a DorominĀ® eating binge but has yet to master the art of grasping a pellet off the surface of the water.

    These fish hail from the South and southeastern part of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. 18 members are known from this group. Very little is known about them.

    For a little more info, look up Jorge Casciotta's insights into these fish and the description of C. celidochilus in the journal Copeia. Having a subtropical distribution, they are capable of tolerating cooler temperatures in aquaria than their Amazonian cousins. Taxonomic clarity will soon be realized as ichthyologists (most likely Kullander et al.) are expected to publish a paper on this group in the near future.

    C. punctata from Porto Alegre has numerous black dots on the body; an appropriately named fish. C. vittata is the largest member of this group, growing over 12 inches.

    The Batrachops Group

    A broad head and different dentition separate this group from the others.

    Heckel erected the genus in 1840 along with Crenicichla and described B. reticulata and B. semifasciata. See Warzel's article in Cichlids Yearbook 4 for an excellent review. Kullander and Ploeg working separately have reunited the two genera.

    Most of these species are not very specialized but one of the more adapted species is the well-known C. sp. "bellyslider." The Colombian C. sp. "Bellyslider" can be found in small brooks and fast flowing, clearwater rivulets. They were collected near Villavicencio.

    C. sp. "Bellyslider" is incorrectly known to American hobbyists as C. sedentaria. The fish in the hobby is undescribed and the real C. sedentaria is not, to my knowledge, in the hobby, but photographs of it can be seen in Staeck & Linke (p. 122) as C. sp. "Rio Chinipo" and in Stawikowski and Werner (p. 277.) Speaking of Stawikowski and Werner, they have published Volume I of a two-volume revision/edition of their classic book on neotropical cichlids. Part I does not include Crenicichla. You'll have to wait for Part II. Uwe Werner wrote a manuscript in 1984 for a Pike cichlid book but didn't publish it for some unknown reason. Perhaps that manuscript will be worked into the forthcoming two-volume set.

    Addendum 1998: I have managed to get a copy of this manuscript and although some of the nomenclature is dated (read incorrect), it would have made a most welcome book. I have been encouraging Frank to write a book on the subject for quite some time.

    Addendum 1999: Frank is writing a book on these fish but he says it may be a few years before publication as he does not have slides of many species.

    Females of the Batrachops group have a red or orange dorsal fin band prominent during breeding.

    The rapids of Rio Tocantins house at least three undescribed and difficult-to-catch species of this group.

    C. cyclostoma is the smallest member of this group with a maximum length of 6 inches. It feeds mainly on the common Mayfly. Their visible dentition is well equipped for this function.

    Many imported C. cyclostoma have a small white worm in their pupils. These are harmless parasites and the fish serve as intermediate hosts. I believe birds are supposed to be the final hosts of the parasite. If observed closely, the parasites can be seen moving around the pupil.

    C. cametana is a larger and more predatory species with a plain, dark coloration and a flat head. This species and C. cyclostoma live under large rocks and boulders. The two species also show a red stripe on the tip of the soft dorsal rays.

    C. jegui is crocodilian in appearance and is probably a nomadic ambush predator. Upon grasping its prey, it quickly returns to its lair before swallowing it. There is another undescribed pike cichlid similar to C. jegui that is more voracious.

    The Dwarf Pikes

    The fourth group of Crenicichla is the dwarf species, which rarely reach more than 5" SL. These are found mostly in the Amazon system, with one in the Orinoco and one in the Essequibo in British Guyana.

    Amazonian species differ in coloration depending on the location. Females although variable, are easily sexed by their dorsal fin markings; females without marking are extremely rare. The Orinoco endemic has been called C. wallaci in the literature but is actually undescribed and is closely related to the Rio Negro endemic C. notophthalmus.

    I collected two specimens of C. notophthalmus in the middle reaches of Rio Jatapu, a river, more than 100 miles from Rio Negro. Rio Jatapu had a surprising number of cichlid species that were supposed to be endemic to Rio Negro. C. notophthalmus have the first ray of their dorsal fin freestanding as in Mikrogeophagus ramirezi.

    These fish are not easy to breed; they need a pH of about 5 for egg development.

    My C. regani seem to thrive in hard, alkaline water and eat anything I throw in the tank. I recommend a minimum tank size of about 30 gallons, with 55 being preferable, decorated with plants and driftwood. The males are very aggressive with each other and the vanquished need room to flee and places to hide. I plan on lowering pH and hardness to induce spawning.

    A new undescribed species from the lower Xingu is probably the smallest dwarf pike cichlid of all, with the females reaching 1.5 inches at breeding size.

    This is a very attractive fish; the slide wow-ed the audience!

    Some dwarf pikes are adapted to live in fast-flowing waters. These are laterally compressed and have limited distributions. For example, the recently described C. urosema is a Tapajos endemic. The best known species C. compressiceps is from the lower Tocantins area.

    To those wondering what C. urosema looks like: imagine a C. regani without any dorsal add a bright red tail. There you have it.

    Pair formation is difficult in the aquarium due to aggression. These and other dwarf Crenicichla are capable of spawning 8 or 9 months post hatching.

    My half dozen reduced their numbers to 2 in a 55-gal tank and they easily hold their own in a tank with mature C. semifasciatus and Acaronia nassa. I also have a few in a tank with Heros appendiculatus and Hypselecara temporalis; these fish are bold and seldom hide.

    The rarest and most curious member of the group is C. macrophthalma, the type species of the genus. It is the largest "dwarf", easily reaching 6 inches. It has extremely large eyes and is a nocturnal species that hides all day. It has never been bred in captivity.

    The Strigata Group

    The fifth and the last group contains very large species with all of them reaching at least a foot in length. Their distribution is similar to the dwarf species. The group is named after C. strigata. (Alex Ploeg calls it the lugubris group.) The original C. strigata in the hobby is actually an undescribed species.

    One of the earliest described species is C. lugubris. The females have a white submarginal band on the dorsal fin; a group characteristic. During breeding they develop an orange and green color pattern on their cheeks and operculum.

    See Enjoying Cichlids (Editor: Ad Konings) for a picture of C. lugubris arguing with a pair of C. marmorata. C. lugubris has been spawned in captivity. [Frank Warzel spawned this species in a large tank with soft, acidic water. They laid about 500 eggs. He found the juveniles to be greedy, even trying to eat rubber bands.]

    I've noticed this behavior in the predatory West African species Hemichromis elongatus.

    C. johanna is known from the Guyanas, Orinoco and the whole Amazon drainage. One distinguishing characteristic: males have a red stripe in the dorsal fin base. This fish also has a very broad lateral band and no caudal ocellus.

    C.ternetzi is another species without a caudal ocellus.

    The true C. strigata is a greenish fish with a large shoulder spot. (See Cichlids Yearbook Vol. 1.)

    Although seemingly easy to recognize (thanks to Wayne Leibel), C. marmorata is quite variable. Besides C. lugubris, it is the only other member of this group that has been propagated in captivity. Eggs developed at pH 6.5 and growth seems to be about one inch per month.

    Half-grown C. lenticulata have a more spotted cheek pattern than other strigata group species. Head spots may disappear and the body can turn yellowish during courtship. C. lenticulata is distributed in the Rio Negro, Rio Branco and the upper Orinoco.

    Crenicichla display a relatively high rate of endemism in clear water rivers such as Tapajos. C. acutirostris is frequently seen in the Rio Tapajos. Its body shape is similar to that of the dwarf species but it gets more than a foot in length. The color pattern changes with age. The nearly unexplored upper Tapajos holds many more undescribed species. Another example of endemism: an undescribed strigata group species with bright white scales on the sides that comes from Maroni River in Surinam. More endemism: This time from Rio Xingu. Luckily 4 of the 6 are found in the hobby. (See Cichlids Yearbook Vol. 1 - 4.) C. sp. Xingu 1 or C. sp. "Orange French Fry" females show a reddish coloration and a white band appears on the dorsal during breeding. The females are also darker and fatter.

    According to Warzel, most of the C. sp. Xingu 1 he has seen in the US are obese! He also mentioned that overfeeding the juveniles could lead to disfigured body parts, especially heads. These and other aquarium-spawned strigata species are in big demand in Japan; that's where most of his strigata-group F1 end up.

    C. sp. Xingu 2 juveniles are not orange and don't school as much as Xingu 1 and so are exported less frequently. Adult males look like C. lugubris but with a pointed snout.

    C. sp. Xingu 3 is adapted to fast-flowing water and living near overhanging rocks. Specific characteristic: new moon crescent behind the pupil. Males are all black. They occasionally feed on Loricariids!

    The Xingu 3 is currently the most expensive pike in the hobby, females often sell for $300 each.

    C. sp. Xingu 4 has now been described as C. percna. It also lives near rocks.

    This was a summary of Frank Warzel's pike cichlid talk in San Antonio, Texas at the ACA convention.


    Casciotta, J. R. 1987. Crenicichla celidochilus N. sp. from Uruguay and a Multivariate Analysis of the lacustris Group (Perciformes, Cichlidae.) Copeia, (4): 883-891.

    Konings, A. (Ed.) 1991-1995. Cichlids Yearbook Vols. 1-5. Cichlid Press, St. Leon-Rot, Germany.

    Kullander, S. O. 1981. A Cichlid from Patagonia. Buntbarsche Bulletin, 85: 13-23.

    Kullander, S. O. 1982. Cichlid Fishes from the La Plata Basin. Part III. The Crenicichla lepidota Species Group. (Teleostei: Cichlidae) Revue Suisse Zool. 89:33-48.

    Kutty, V. 1993. Getting them to eat pellets (And other Assorted Ramblings) ACARA 1 (1): 6-7.

    Kutty, V. 1993. Assorted Ramblings Part II. ACARA 1(2):6-7.

    Leibel, W. S. 1993. A Fishkeepers Guide to South American Cichlids. Tetra Press. Blacksburg, VA.

    Leibel, W. S. 1994. Goin' South: Cichlids of South America; Part 20: The Pike Cichlids. Aquarium Fish Magazine 7(1):68ff.

    Ploeg, A. 1991. Revision of the South American Cichlid Genus Crenicichla Heckel, 1840 with Descriptions of Fifteen New Species and Considerations on Species Groups, Phylogeny, and Biogeography. (Pisces, Perciformes, Cichlidae.) Academische Proefschrift, Universitat van Amsterdam.

    Staeck, W and Linke, H. 1985. Amerikanische Cichliden II: Grobe Buntbarsche. Tetra Verlag, Melle, Germany.

    Stawikowski, R. and Werner, U. 1988. Die Buntbarsche der Neuen Welt: Sudamerika. Reimar Hobbing GmbH Verlag. Germany.

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