By Vinny Kutty
Pike Cichlids seem to be enjoying a wave of popularity lately. This is wonderful because it happens to coincide with my interests. The emergence of a few endemic species from Rio Xingu like the Orange Pike and the Rio Tocantins endemic C. compressiceps, Pikes have come out of the closet. Usually, when people think of Pike cichlids, they imagine ugly, nasty, vicious fish that eat other tank mates. Anyone who likes Oscars and Jack Dempseys ought to like Pike cichlids (they scratch the same itch so to speak). Fortunately, the stereotypical view of Pike cichlids is false - yes there are some highly aggressive species and some that can consume tank mates and some that are relatively colorless but rarely does one species possess all these undesirable qualities.
For the last ten years or so, a few dwarf pike cichlids have been coming in regularly from the Amazon Basin, which is where all dwarf pike cichlids occur and this is great for those aquarists who don't have large aquariums. Pike Cichlids belong to the genus Crenicichla HECKEL 1840. Twenty years ago, it was a confused mess of a genus - even the ichthyologists couldn't tell species apart. There were about 40 species in the genus. Thanks to scientists like Sven O. Kullander and Alex Ploeg, who have discovered and described a couple of dozen new species and helped identify many more. Dwarf Pike Cichlids are similar to the West African Kribs (Pelvicachromis pulcher) in that they are small, often live in very soft, acidic water and the females have red bellies when they are mature.
The most frequently seen Dwarf Pike is Crenicichla compressiceps PLOEG 1986. C. compressiceps is a small fish that lives in the rapids of Eastern Brazil, in the lower Tocantins, an area severely threatened by the construction of an enormous dam with a reservoir almost 100 miles long. This fish was first imported in 1990 and sold to aquarists at ridiculously high prices. Unlike the others of this group, this fish does not require soft water to spawn. It is also refreshingly bold and unafraid to be out in the open. Darin Gasperson of Tampa, Florida has managed to spawn this fish once but the fry were not raised. Like all Pikes, they are cave spawners and they spawned in a hole in a driftwood. The females usually don't have any stripes in their tail or anal fins. It can be quite scrappy but it is pretty hardy. Pair formation may be a little difficult in tanks smaller than 55 gallons due to aggression. I found it difficult to house more than one male in a 55-gallon tank. Hiding places will be required for smaller conspecifics. This fish is still a little expensive but I'm hoping some of the bigger fish farms will acquire some breeding stock. In the wild, they live among rocks and rubble a thought to remember when setting up a tank for them. It is a specialized invertebrate feeder in the wild and will relish live brine shrimp and daphnia in aquaria.
The other dwarf pike that come into the US hobby is Crenicichla regani PLOEG, 1989, a newly described fish that inhabits most of the Amazon Basin. The females have distinct black spots on their dorsal fin and the males don't. These fish can come in from the wild quite battered but once you get them turned around with CLOUT and Naladixic acid, they are fairly hardy. My experiences with collecting this species in the wild suggest they manage a meager existence. All collected specimens were emaciated. They are micropredators, feeding on small crustaceans and small fishes including some Apistogramma species, with which they are always found, near the shores of rivers, lakes and often under leaf litter. In almost all the areas where they are found, the water is very soft (10-50 microSiemens/cm) and very acidic (pH<6.0). The water is often tea-colored from tannins. The temperature range varies, but the fish I collected were found in water of about 80 F. It seemed unlikely that these fish survive past one season in the wild a conjecture I make due to the collection of exclusively juveniles/young adults of 6-8 months of age. Since I collected them in September, it can be inferred that these fish spawn in February through April. In aquaria, they are sexually mature in just 3 months age and spawn soon thereafter! Helen Burns of Scotland noticed sexual differences in her C. regani fry at 11 weeks and they spawned at 15 weeks.
Aquarium spawnings of these fish are becoming increasingly common and occur if conditioned with live foods, a pH of less than 7.0, soft water and caves are provided - they love caves with very small openings. The eggs number around 150 in full-grown pairs. In aquaria C. regani males can sometimes reach sizes where they may not be considered a dwarf cichlid anymore some reach 6 inches in length, a condition rarely reproducible in the wild.
Another even more beautiful species is Crenicichla notophthalmus REGAN, 1913 from the lower Rio Negro and a few other neighboring rivers. It was believed to be a Rio Negro endemic but I was able to capture a young male of this species in Rio Jatapu, a few hundred miles east of Rio Negro. As mentioned before, the females of this species have a red ring round the single round spot on the dorsal fin. The first few spines of the dorsal fin in males resemble that of male Rams (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi) they are freestanding. This species can also grow larger in aquaria than in the wild, with males reaching 5 to 6 inches TL. It is also more aggressive and more challenging to induce spawning than C. regani. A friend, David Soares of Oregon has been trying to breed this fish for some time. He observes frequent courtship behavior between his pair, but no spawns yet. He has them housed in a 120-gal. tank by themselves and the pH is about 4.5
There are other Dwarf Pike Cichlids, but they are rarely imported into the hobby. Some like Crenicichla heckelli PLOEG, 1989 and Crenicichla urosema KULLANDER, 1990 are only a couple of inches long. Most others grow to about 4 inches. The largest dwarf is Crenicichla macrophthalma HECKEL, 1840, which gets about 6 to 8 inches. Well, it is actually not a dwarf since it gets as big as any saxatilis group Pike, but it possesses the shape, uniquely characteristic of C. regani and C. notophthalmus. It is however, nocturnal and has very large eyes as its name implies. In aquaria, this fish lurks in caves all day and becomes highly active once the lights are shut off. C. macrophthalma is also the type species of the genus Crenicichla.
I recently acquired a few pikes that seem fully grown at 4 inches and they resemble C. sp. Bocon pictured in the Aqualog book. It features a prominent lateral band and mild aquarium manners. I was unable to get any collection locality of the fish but it was sold as "Dwarf Pike". It is certainly an undescribed species and I shall post a photograph of it soon on this site.
The best way to feed these fish is to offer them live and frozen foods. That's the best way to feed all Crenicichla for that matter. They will learn to eat prepared foods if you put them in with other fish that are already eating prepared foods. These fish do appreciate lots of cover and driftwood. Aquatic plants are usually left alone but during spawning, the pH may be too low for most plants to survive. Anubias sp. and Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana) are options. A warm temperature of around 80 F is sufficient. Hard, alkaline water seems acceptable for day-to-day survival but you will need to give all of the above mentioned species, except for Crenicichla compressiceps, soft, acidic water to induce them to spawn. Water quality management through superior biological filtration and/or large water is essential. Efficiency of biological filtration may decline when the pH is dropped below 6, so regular water changes become even more important.
A new genus of Dwarf Cichlids from the rapids of Eastern Brazil called Teleocichla contains about 10 species. These are interesting fish and due to sensitivity to low oxygen and ammonia, they don't ship well and have not been able to get established in the hobby. But if you do get lucky and obtain some Teleocichla make sure you use a powerful filter and a few power heads to duplicate the water quality and movement in the wild. Another friend, Lisa Wrischnik of Stockton, California has succeeded in acquiring and breeding T. proselytus. Frank Warzel has also spawned a couple of these fish in Germany. Mike Jacobs of Florida and many others are now trying their hands at breeding this fish.
It's a little disheartening for me sometimes when I find out that these fish are first imported into Florida from Brazil and then shipped from here to Germany and Japan. When asked why these fish are not marketed here, the answer is often: Americans are not interested in new fish and aren't willing to pay the price...unless of course the fish are gaudily colored. Some of us appreciate the finer, grayer things in life.
Dwarf Pikes are a wonderful and rewarding alternative to their larger cousins.