African Cichlids are mostly mouth-brooders: when they breed, the female will pick up the eggs and hold them in her mouth, whilst the male fertilises them (hence the egg spots on the anal fin). She will hold the eggs for up to 28 days, until the fry have hatched and have developed into fully formed fry. The fry are then left to fend for themselves as miniatures of their parents, able to hide amongst the rocks and giving them a fighting chance of survival. If a female is holding, she usually won't eat and her chin will appear large, like the fish in the pictures to the right.
It is always a source of debate in fishkeeping of African Cichlids: whether to strip your females early, or let them spit their babies out naturally in the tank. Stripping them means that the female will recover quicker, as they usually don’t eat when they hold, leaving them stronger and ready to breed quicker. The female will lose a lot of weight and condition during this process. However, some keepers would prefer to let nature keep its course, due to the potential damage that handling the female could cause. Leaving the mother in the tank to spit naturally will most likely result in most of the fry being eaten.
So, if you decide to strip a female, as a lot of breeders do, here is a step-by-step guide to help you. Doing it for the first time is one of the scariest tasks in fishkeeping, but it soon gets easier!
- Preparation. Get the things you need. You're going to need a fry tank, or a net trap (be wary of these, as mbuna and haps are known to suck the fry through the netting). Then, the instrument. You need something sharp enough to prise open the female’s lips but blunt enough to not cause her damage. Your thumb is a popular, safe choice. However, if your thumb is a little too thick or clumsy, there are plenty of other things that you could use: blunt toothpicks; cotton wool buds; blunt chip forks.
- Grab the female. You know the drill. You may can to take your rocks out, an annoying task. Once you’ve got her. Hold her in a wet net over the tank, tub or whatever the fry are going in, until you’re ready to get going.
- Handle the female. Gentle but firm. Remember to wet your hands before handling the fish. Be sure you don’t bend any fins the wrong way or keep her out of the water for too long – you know the drill. Some keepers may wrap the fish in a wet net to handle them, to reduce damage to the fish and protect you from any sharp spines on their fins.
- So, when you’re ready, crack on. Hold the female gently but firmly in your hand. Gently put your thumb or instrument on her bottom lip, and open her mouth. Put her in the water, tilting her so that her head is down. Getting bob up and down, and the fry should start to fall out of her mouth. If there are a few stragglers liking the comfort of their mum’s mouth, you can try tickling under the female’s chin to push the fry out.
- Once you think they’ve all gone, have a check. Allow the female to relax a little (don’t let her go in the tank as she will try and pick her fry back up). Then, you can either put her straight back into the tank to fend for herself immediately, or put her in another tank/ net-trap for a day or two to get her strength back. Feed the female back up, and she should be fine.
Obviously, the quicker this process, the better. It’s a stressful process for the female, who of course is the priority. After the stripping, make sure she is eating after a day or so.
The fry may have an egg-sack when they’re stripped, indicating they’re not fully developed. Not to worry – as the fry will be raised in a safe, control environment, they will develop fine. Just make sure that the tank has water movement so that the egg-sack doesn’t stick to the side of the tank. Once they’re free-swimming, you can feed them. The most common food is crushed flake, so that the fry can fit the small food in their mouths.
In a fry tank, the best equipment to have is a sponge filter, so that the fry don’t get sucked up. Also, it’s essential to do water-changes more often than a normal tank (25% every one or two days will see your fry growing very quickly). Parameters should be aimed at the same as the adult tank.
A few extra notes:
- Be careful about mixing batches of fry. They can eat one another: if there’s a week or so in between the batches, or if they can possibly fit the others in their mouths, do not mix them!
- If it’s the first time a female’s hold, leave her to spit naturally. It gives her the experience of holding full-term, and will make her a more successful holding female in the future.
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