Long ago in the early days of the fish keeping hobby, even when I was young in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, before the mouthbreeder species of African Cichlids from Lake Malawi . Before the intensely beautiful highly colorful variety of African Cichlids of many varieties there was one mainstay for young aquarists to learn about the wonders of breeding by observation with, a species that was as plain and unattractive as it was easy to keep and breed.
The Egyptian Mouthbrooder also referred to as Hemigaplochromis multicolor and Haplochromis multicolor is from North and East Africa. Males grow up to 3 inches and females only 2 and 1/12 inch when kept in an aquarium. They have an elongated oval body with scales that have a metallic greenish-bluish sheen; fins have a pattern of orange. The tank-bred fish one finds on line often lack the beautiful colors of their wild ancestors. Though they are rather plain in appearance males have red on the end of the anal fin and females are noticeably smaller and paler.
The Nile Mouth-Breeder, Tilapia nilotica is very common even in brackish water in nature. It comes from Africa, East Africa, Upper Congo, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Chad inlets, the Senegal River, the Niger River and northeast from Syria and Israel.
This is the fish you hear they farm for food everywhere in hydroponic set ups. Young specimens were often sold to hobbyists and are ok for about 2 years then they become monsters up to 20 inches long.
Back in the day, both fish were the fish to keep and learn how to breed your first cichlids. Its popularity has waned to the point that you probably have never seen one of these amazingly easy to keep fish, but if this is your first attempt at breeding mouth breeding cichlids, it is a good one to start with if you can find a pair on line.
Make sure it is the Dwarf Egyptian variety, and not the common Tilapia variety which grows to over 20 inches and will rip your aquarium apart, building endless nests larger than any tank you can put them in!
This confusion between the two species, and their similarity in looks and behavior at a young age is what made them virtually disappear from the hobby. But if you can find a true pair of Pseudocrenilabrus multicolor, you will not be disappointed.
The Unique Story of the Mouthbreeders
While some fish show absolutely no interest in their young once the eggs are laid (except to eat them), others are devoted parents. In a number of species either one parent or both of them may care for both eggs and the young until they are large enough to fend for themselves.
The parents of certain African and Asian fishes show a sacrificial devotion to their young that must surely surpass the devotion of any other members of the animal kingdom. The mother or father mouthbreeder carries the eggs and babies around in his or her mouth.
One species of African mouthbreeder, Tilapia, has been widely distributed throughout the tropical world because it is fairly good to eat, and it can live and multiply profusely in ponds and rice paddies where other fishes of equal size would die.
Tilapia has become an important food item in many protein-starved areas of the world.
However, the mouthbreeder best known to aquarists is the Egyptian mouthbrooder. Haplochromis multicolor, a fish that grows to only about three inches. Males of this species are very attractive, with blue, white and reddish markings over the body and fins. The females are less brightly marked.
With good feeding, it is not difficult to get these fish to spawn in the aquarium. At spawning time the male Egyptian mouthbrooder digs a depression in the sand by fanning his tail. The male coaxes the female into his “nest.” There the female deposits a few eggs and after the male fertilizes them, she picks them up in her mouth. More eggs are laid in this manner until there are one hundred or more, all in the mother’s large pouch like mouth.
For two weeks no sign of the young is seen, and then one day the whole brood is released to try their fins. At first they venture forth for only short periods. All during this incubation period the mother can be seen pumping water over her children, through her mouth and gill covers, and she occasionally rearranges them within her mouth.
For another three weeks or more the young hover about the mother’s mouth. At the first sign of danger they dart into her mouth for protection. At last the youngsters become so large that the mother’s mouth no longer can hold them. From then on they must manage on their own. In fact, even their own mother becomes a danger to them, for once the young are too large for her mouth, she may well eat them.
Now remember all during this time (about five weeks) the mother refrains from eating anything. Her shriveled body is a pathetic sight. In some cases the female starves herself to death in the process, but usually a week or two of good feeding restores her to normal proportions.
The instinct to refrain from eating at breeding time is very strong in these fish. One aquarist reported in The Aquarium Magazine of July 1944:
“During the middle of April, I purchased a pair of these fish and put them in a seven-gallon community tank which contained several other pairs of fish. On May 6th I noticed that the female mouthbreeder was refusing to eat, and that her mouth was enlarged, so I removed her to another aquarium. Within a week the little fish could be seen very plainly in her mouth, and on May 18th I discovered them out swimming in the water; but as soon as I moved closer to the aquarium they all swam back into the mother’s mouth. The next day they were out again and when I approached the aquarium the mother made no motion toward storing them back in her jaws. She appeared to be through with her parental duties, and so I removed her from the young back into the community tank.”
The Egyptian mouthbrooder’s parental devotion is certainly far above and beyond the call of many of the fish we learn how to breed in this wonderful hobby we all experience.
I hope you get a chance to acquire a pair of these wonderful fish, a glance to a past time, a former staple of the hobby many have forgotten.
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