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Many aquatic hobbyists pursue rare fish. Scarcity in the hobby however, does not necessarily translate into a species being difficult or interesting to maintain. I am fortunate to possess a group of the uncommon and fascinating cichlid Iranocichla hormuzensis. The first challenge is undoubtedly locating this fish. Once you have found I. hormuzensis, breeding can be a daunting chore. I will explain the obstacles I have encountered during this article.
Iranocichla hormuzensis is the only cichlid found in Iran and is the lone member of the genus (monotypic). It is a maternal mouthbrooder with an extremely limited range along the southern coast of Iran being restricted to rivers draining into the Strait of Hormuz. The word "river" can be misleading as I have seen pictures of this species being collected in ankle deep water flowing at a snail's pace. Every waterway seems to be slightly different, ranging in width from 1-50 meters. Often the streams will experience diminished flow rates and will settle into pools. Some years the pools may have fish and others they do not. The parameters of the water of its habitat vary wildly in regards to both salinity and temperature. This is a large portion of the challenge in keeping these animals. Normally when I learn a fish comes from a system of fluctuating measurements, I associate it with a species that is easy to keep and a little bit more tolerant of the water when what we put into their tanks isn't perfect. The challenge is not in the daily maintenance of I. hormuzensis, but in matching those conditions when trying to induce spawning. These waterways have not been studied as extensively as most leaving many gaps in regards to addressing their water quality needs. A large portion of the terrain in close proximity to these rivers, consist of salt domes. This can cause to the water to be highly saline. Consequently, any influx of freshwater into the system will cause the salinity level to fluctuate. These are mostly small bodies of water and I would consider the conditions to be anything but stable. In addition, the water found in several oases where this fish is found, consists of pure fresh water.
If challenging water conditions were not enough, the area is exposed to extreme temperature changes. Winter temperatures range from 12-30 C while in summer this environment can swell up to 44+ C. Unlike many of the waterways associated with other cichlids, there is very little vegetation along the banks to provide any shade. This combined with the reduced water levels in the summer make for tough living.
I have had discussions concerning the state of the fish in its native waterways with several people, including several prominent ichthyologists. Some think the fish is in serious peril because farmers are using the water for irrigation and industrialization of the region. The other camp maintains that the fish is not at any greater risk than they previously faced based on limited distribution and tough environmental conditions. The thought process is that the region is so undesirable and desolate that it has escaped the industrialization found elsewhere. Without treatment, the water is too salty to be used for farming. I have not heard much middle ground and the opinions seem to be far apart.
This is an absolutely stunning fish when it matures. I. hormuzensis is relatively small at a maximum length of about 4". While somewhat undersized, it possesses a very stout body. Juveniles are slightly elongated and one can clearly see the convex shape of the head developing early on. At this point, any hints of future coloration are non-existant. The young maintain a silver-green coloration with no pigmentation in the fins. The body exhibits 7- 11 vertical bars that become less obvious as the fish matures. The dorsal fin contains an easily recognizable tilapia spot. In the description of the species, it is stated that males can be differentiated from females by a greater head length, larger pelvic fins, and greater interorbital width, but frankly I was unable to accurately sex these fish until they began to display certain behavior and color changes. When looking closely, you begin to notice white spots on the silver fish. Slowly the male begins to exhibit darkening shades of gray until it appears as a light black. When in breeding dress, the male is intensely black with white and turquoise iridescent spots scattered throughout the body and caudal fin. There are no spots on either the anal or pelvic fins. The dorsal contains some spots, and has white banding that occurs in the otherwise black fin. The speckling on the body begins behind the gill plate while the cranial region is black. If you look at other images and read through the limited material available, you will find that males also appear with a black body and a brick-red lower side along with the bottom portion of the jaw. The species description mentions both of these variants without further elaboration on potential reasons for the differences. It could be diet, water condition, or locale variants, but all of this is simply speculation on my part. Hopefully as additional taxonomic work is done with this cichlid we can fill some of the gaps in our knowledge. The females maintain the silver coloration and vertical barring. I have seen them darken up a little bit, but it is just very light gray without all the spotting. Unlike the males, the tilapia spot is easily seen in the females. The differentiation in hues of the females to a strutting male makes for a stunning display.
I acquired my "group" of fish in November 2007. I say group, but it was only four individuals. This is a species I had been chasing for a number of years and was always near the top of my "must have" list. I was appreciative to obtain them, but will admit only having four individuals made me feel a little nervous. I was unsure of how to maintain them so this really didn't give me very much room for error. The fish had just been released from the mother about 7 days previous to them coming into my possession and were extremely tiny. When I first gazed into the bag I couldn't even see the fry at all. I poured the contents of the bag into a coffee cup hoping it would be easier to see them. I made out 4 sets of tiny black eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.
I am not a scientist and the idea of playing chemist with water parameters had me a bit anxious. The key factor I was trying to determine was the salt content of the water. I had a couple of weeks to prep and enrolled the help of my fellow fish geek, Nick Andreola, to figure out how I was going to set the tank up. The actual physical setup was easy. I prepared a 113 liter long as I would for any other cichlid I had maintained. I used a slightly oversized hang on the back filter and because I knew the fish were small I used a sponge over the intake tube to keep from siphoning them up into it. I employed pool filter sand as the substrate and dotted it with several medium size pieces of holey rock and tied in some artificial silk plants. These fish are accustomed to warm water, so I submerged a heater into the tank and set the thermostat for 23C. I filled the tank with water and looked at the volume of water and said to myself, "now what?" I had done as much research as possible on the specific waterways these fish were found and as I mentioned earlier it varies wildly. Even if I had exact readings, I had no idea how that would actually be executed in the tank. Nick was on the case though. I had total confidence he would figure this out for me. He called me to discuss and after listening to him explain in great detail, I had no idea what he was talking about. I don't think Stephen Hawking would know what he was talking about! He had a mouthful of equations and numbers and you need this measuring device and oh by the way do you have access to an electron smasher? Maybe I added the last part, but this was giving me a headache. If these fish can't survive in my tank how in the heck will they avoid disappearing in the wild? I hung up with Nick and told him I would call him later after I absorbed his information. Hopefully he isn't still sitting by the phone. It took a little longer than it should have, but I decided to reach out to the few other hobbyists I knew of, who had kept them to uncover their maintenance secrets. I asked three people and got three different answers. One of them kept them in pure freshwater, another said a large soup spoon of salt per gallon, and the other said a small palm worth per gallon. Great, what are your local tap water conditions, what size are the soup spoons in Europe, and how big are your hands? After fretting over this for a couple of weeks I decide I will use a soup spoon worth of salt per gallon. I went to grab a spoon from the drawer and my wife asked what I was doing. I went into great detail to demonstrate how smart I was and I was using this spoon to salt the tank. "You are not using one of my nice spoons for your tanks" was her reply. She handed me a tablespoon from an old cutlery set and said I could have that one. So after weeks of research and discussion I am using a tablespoon of salt per gallon.
I had the tank prepared for a week before I received the fish. Once they were in my hands I slowly acclimated them to their home. I was in my fishroom constantly, checking on, and trying to count the four of them. I was never able to get above three and lost the one very early on. This kicked my stress level up a notch.
The fish has an elongated intestinal tract consistent with an algae based diet (Lamboj, pers comm.). I fed crushed spirulina flake for quite some time. Growth was slow, but they were growing. This was a positive sign. Of course during this point it came time to do my first water change. I drained about 30% of the tank into a bucket and then poured the bucket into a gallon milk jug to precisely measure how much water I had taken out of the tank. I was determined to replace the salt content grain for grain. Half the water ended up on the floor as I was pouring it into the milk jugs. I. hormuzensis was my first foray into any type of fishkeeping involving salt and it wasn't going well. I have had prouder moments in the hobby than this disaster in the making. Water was seeping all over the floor and I had no idea how much salt to replenish. Keep in mind how difficult the conditions are that these fish exist in the wild and this makes all of this obsessing bordering on silly. I was living in the moment though and determined to do this right. In hindsight I am sure a little less/more salt wouldn't have bothered them much. I now use guesstimation and mix some salt and water into a bucket to fill the tank back up. I mixed it well and proceeded to siphon the water into the tank from the bucket. The bucket was empty. I looked in the pail and 90% of the salt had stayed in the bottom of the bucket. I walked over and shut the door to the fishroom. I didn't need my family witnessing this spectacle. I grabbed the hose and went about filling the tank back up. I reached for the spoon, estimated what I needed to get close, and called it good. I attentively watched the fish for the next couple of hours waiting for them to keel over from the shock to their system they must surely have been experiencing. Amazingly they survived their first water change. Subsequent water changes went much smoother. I operated under the motto, "What doesn't kill them only makes them stronger". I drained the water, added dechlor, and slowly filled the water up and added salt as I was filling and it worked fine. As I discovered while tinkering with water parameters, these fish are extremely hardy.
I had no false illusions that this trio would be breeding anytime soon. The dialogue I had developed with the other hobbyists, keeping I. hormuzensis was a wonderful source of information. It would be around 24 months before I could expect them to breed. I was concentrating on maintaining healthy fish while focused on water changes and feeding. Three fish in a 113 liter tank was not taxing the filtration system at all, but I performed a rigorous schedule of 30% weekly water changes. In addition to the spirulina flake I introduced algae tabs and the occasional protein flake which were greedily consumed. The fish were putting on size and aggression was not yet an issue. Despite no dithers or target fish in the aquarium they were not a shy species at all. I enjoyed watching them slowly develop. After a year, one of the individuals began transforming from silver to a light gray. Over a few months the coloration became a darker and darker gray until eventually the body was light black. The speckling became a bit more prominent during this time frame as well. There were still no signs of real aggression but this developing male had one side of the tank to himself and the other two tended to keep to the other side. All three would move freely without any aggression issues, but the tendency of the group was to stay on their own sides. The male was really coming into his own in regards to his coloration and was now in full bloom. This did not translate into any courting behavior though. Several months went by and the other two fish were starting to spar somewhat. As time drew on, a full out battle between the two females ensued. The two females spent several weeks rushing at each other and jaw locking. I was observing this closely as I could not afford to lose any of the fish. Despite the battle royal no visible damage was being done to either fish. Eventually this activity subsided and one of the females was now hanging out with the male in his rock pile. By no means were they exhibiting pairing behavior, but were definitely getting along enough to allow each other in the same area. The other fish stayed in her half of the tank. I have not seen any fighting between those two since that one frenzied period. The male was now in breeding coloration at all times and could be seen displaying to the female often. He would sashay across the tank and court the other female as well. This went on for several weeks before I actually witnessed a female with buccal cavity full of eggs. Over several months I had a female holding three times and never more than a week. The next time it happened I decided I would strip the eggs and tumble them. Unfortunately there has not been a next time. While the male has maintained his vibrant hues and occasionally shimmies up to a female, there has been almost zero courting behavior.
More time passes I determine it is time to start tinkering with some water parameters to see if I can trigger a spawning. The nervousness I exhibited a couple of years ago is now gone and I am not too concerned about playing mad scientist. Many fish will spawn during a rainy season because they have learned that along with the rain come enhanced food sources. The first thing I do is to slowly lower the salt content in the tank. Once lowered, I would maintain it for at least a month. By the time I have tweaked it down as far as I felt comfortable with; the salt levels were about 25% of the original quantity. This wasn't working. Next I varied the diet and begin feeding mosquito larvae I was collecting in a bucket outside. I also increased the frequency of the protein flake. With little effect, I tried a different brand of food, again, with no luck. The next factor to alter was temperature. I began by lowering the temperature of the heater and eventually turned it off. The lowest temperature the water reached was about 18C. I also proceeded to alter the salt content again as I was experimenting with the temperature. Once this failed to trigger any responses I began to crank the temperature up and had the heater up to 31C before deciding not to go any higher. I will admit while I was frustrated it was an enjoyable challenge as well. These fish were making me work to entice a spawning and I was having fun trying to outsmart them. After many months of this I still had nothing as far as spawns, but still had 3 healthy fish that appeared no worse for wear.
I reached out to a friend who wasn't having any luck and he was able to pass along 4 females from his group all in the name of getting this species to breed. While there has been increased courting behavior only one spawn has been witnessed and it was aborted several days later. The shifting of parameters has resumed and different variations are being attempted. I have a friend who has proven he can spawn almost anything. He lives close by and we have moved the fish over to his house so he is working with them as well. It is more important to me to achieve a spawn and be able to share these fish than it is to keep them in my fishroom just for the sake of having them.
The slightly alarming sequel to my story is that most of the other known groups in captivity have stopped spawning and no one is producing any fry.
Iranocichla hormuzensis has been the most challenging fish I have kept to date and I am as enthusiastic today about them as I was when I was lucky enough to obtain them. It is an absolutely stunning fish that would be the highlight of any collection. I hope the attempts to spawn this fish are successful and more people will get the opportunity to enjoy them. This will only lead to more awareness of a beautiful cichlid and assist in expanding our knowledge base.