My attempt to breed Ancistrus sp.
by Francesco Zezza
FOREWORD: Bristlenose (and all the others) catfishes always fashinated me, to the point I, eventually, decided to visit their homeland (the Amazon Basin) and before, during, after this trip I kept studying these unbelievable, “ugly” fishes. It’s said that breeding catfishes is absolutely NOT easy. Even if Ancistrus are reknown to be the easier (or less difficult). An article by Kristian Adolfsson, (who, by the way, I – here -thank alot) triggered, again, my interest toward the opportunity to actually bred them, and I decided to try … And then, all of a sudden. I faced a completely different “matter”: the environment in which Ancistrus live in, their spawning needs, food, water requirement, all the rest … to make a long story short ALL they need to thrive is completely different from what my african cichlids need. It took me a bit to understand what, actually, means being involved in running a tank aimed to their reproduction. Let’s review the whole matter briefly, then ...
Firts things first.
Ancistrus, like many fish coming from tropical areas (and namely rain forest areas), have seasons to spawn, it mostly happens in the rain season since rains mean increased food supply, more shelters (for fry) and more spawning place available. It’s said You need to mimic that weather alternance in order to, succesfully, spawn them. And all the same you’re not that sure to get your goal … most catfishes are, to say so, stubborn spawner (in a tank) because of their peculiar needs. Simply think about most plecos, that use to burrow themselves in the muddy bank of the rivers to lay eggs … and try to replicate that in a tank! Cumbersome as it may seem each genus/species seems to have their own spawning procedure/needs. (BTW: Ancistrus eggs are ALWAYS attended by the male). Ancistrus (aka bristlenose catfishes) are said to be among the less fussy of all (check the protocol listed below, please!) and even if there are report of fishes that bred in “absolutely wrong” water my pair refused to do that (despite the fact they were kept to my very best in an “average” tank, and that’s why I decided – in the end - to give to the method below described a try. Info reported in this article come from books, chats (while sailing in the forest), previous experiences and more; after having collected them all the following notes are what’s has resulted.
How it works in wild (or, better, how it’s said to work in wild!)
Lot of parameters, many of them simultaneously, vary leading fishes of the Amazon basin to do their “job”: spawn. Here is, in absolutely NO order, the list of what I’m aware. Beware: this list could work for a given fishes and not for another or, else, do NOT work at all. Being patient is an, absolute, must when playing the “breeding game” with catfishes!
The story, in wild, is supposed to go on like this: the Pressure goes down: it happens in the end of the dry season when the barometric pressure falls in connection with the first rain. The Food’s supply increases: As a consequence of the rain the availability of food greatly increases. Certain species had to face long periods – during the dry months - of starvation even eating detritus to get some nutrition. The Food, in quality, changes: With the begin of the rains the food changes: insects keep falling down on the surface, mosquito larvae are available (it’s said white/black mosquito), pollen from flowers is at hand, as well as seeds, fruits, fresh leaves and – likely - eggs and fry of other species (that spawned earlier). Finally the Water flow rises: As a result of the rain. Some species (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus among others, as far as I know) migrate up-stream to get to calmer and more suitable spawning areas. These facts lead to some changes in general environment, among others:
1. Oxygen level rises: Falling rain, and the increased water flow also, makes the oxygen level increase. It’s said a high oxygen level is a condition for the eggs and fry to make it during their first days.
2. The water turns acidic: During the dry season lot of salts, humic substances and organic material reached, step by step, a higher levels while the water level was going down. The (rain)falling water has zero, almost, in hardness: as a result it lowers the hardness, and often even the pH.
3. The water temperature changes: Another consequence of the heavy rains (you have to try, on your own, a heavy rain in the Amazon forest to get the true meaning of the term “heavy rain”!) is the lowering of water temperature. Also the diminished light (by the sun) period pushes water temp downward (in certain circumstances the temperature goes down as much as 10ºC. Mostly in the upper Rio Amazonas – and related rivers - area).
4. The water depth increases: Again, the falling rain causes the water surface to rise. The water pressure at the bottom increases and a larger (vertically) swimming space is available.
5. More spawning sites become available: The increasing water depth allows the fishes to look for flooded areas with plants, roots, tree trunks and shadows suitable for spawning and hiding eggs. Also fry have a better chance to survive.
6. Light changes: Both in amount and duration (of the day), lot of clouds further diminish the light’s levels
7. Plant plankton level rises: For many fishes this is a, real, spawning trigger: it means there’s food suitable, in size, even for smaller fry.
8. Spawning period of the year: Certain species are reported to have a sort of "biological clock", deeply related to the alternance of rain and dry seasons. This relation occurring in their natural habitat is “remembered” by lot of – mostly wild caught - catfishes.
9. Other fish spawn: Hormones diluited in water (from other fish that spawns) might trigger cafishes to spawn.
10. Sound: Even the rain's noise on surface could be a signal to spawn, and even – possibly - the sound of thunders.
Back to our tank(s) now:
Things are, in tanks, consistently different; shoud I add: of course? At any rate lot of trick are at hand to mimic as much as possible, what’s happening in wild. Do not forget each species may result more/less fussy in regard of your attempt to run the tank “as wild as you can”.
· Low pressure: There is little, on the matter, you can do beside keeping an eye on the weather forecasts and thus starting simulated rainy season during an, actual, period of low pressure. Having a barometer at hand could be a clever idea.
· Food supply: Fish in good shape that are set to spawn can face a long starvation (up to several weeks). When the feeding later begins again this will trigger their instinct to spawn.
· Food types: Change the foods you offer them. In (it’s said) South America the amount of mosquito larvae increases (mostly white ones) during the beginning of the rainy season. Void feeding mosquito larvae before attempting to spawn a species, then begin offering them during the simulated start of the rainy season.
· Water flow: Use different forms of pumps and filters (modify water flow rate). Use your imagination!
· Increased oxygen levels: Rely on air driven (i.e.: sponge) filter and air stones. Also allowing a filter to "splash" on the surface to increase the amount of oxygen could be a good idea.
· Dissolved substances in the water: Increase the level of humic substances (i.e. use peat) and salts (fertilizer, CaCO3, MgSO4) during the simulated dry season. Later lower it using as soft water as possible when the rainy season begins (preferably RO water).
· Change of the water temperature: play with water heaters to increase temp when trying to mimic the dry season and, then, lower it in the “rainy” period. To further lower, just in case, the temperature use a air fan or, even, put an “ice block” in the tank.
· Change in water depth: Lower the water level to 25% of normal during the dry season, then increase it to normal level during a couple of days at the begin of the rain season.
· Spawning sites become available: Change the plants and decorations (re-arrange the aquascaping). Use pots and roots to turn it into a new environment more suitable for spawning.
· Changes in the light:
1. Light intensity: Provided you have more than one lamp You can diminish the number of, actually, working lamp(s). Use a shield if you happen to have only one lamp.
2. Light duration: Shorten light period of 1-2 hours, both in the morning and evening (days are shorter in the rain season). Use a timer!
3. Light angle: Sorry, no suggestion on the matter …
· Increased plant plankton level: You may try with infusoria. There’s, almost, nothing else you can try on the matter.
· Right time of the year: Wild caught fish could like the rain season is simulated in that, actual, period of the year when it happens in wild. Captive bred specimens, generally speaking, are said to be not that fussy!
· Other fish spawning: An easily bred species spawning in the same tank could result in being a trigger to induce a stubborn one to do the same.
· Sound: Allow the water you add to, as much as possible, mimic the noise of water splashing the surface.
My point of view: considering all of the above points I decided to go WITH bottom material, the tank looks more natural and. Also, more pleasant to look at. It’s, of course, a personal choice, and it’s way far from being – once again – an absolute truth. See, below, point: 2; 2.1; 2.2.
1) Choose a tank with the right size for the species in question. Do refer to the lowest level of water you’re supposed to reach when lowering the level (dry season goes on). This may result in huge tanks when trying, if ever, to breed large specimens (simply think of an adult Panaque nigrolineatus).
2) You may use or not bottom material, each opportunity shows advantages and disadvantages.
2.1) Advantages with bottom material:
· Color of gravel/sand may vary from one species to another. It’s said many Corydoras prefer a pale bottom. No direct experience on the matter.
· Many fishes "like" to look for food at the bottom.
· Eggs, at bottom, are harder for the parents to find and eat (not refers to Ancistrus but for instance, to many characins).
· No reflections from the bottom = more natural environment.
2.2) Disadvantages with bottom material:
· Difficult to spot uneaten food.
· Hard to clean without vacuuming out sand/peat.
3) If you don't know what the fish you’re trying to spawn prefers (not that uncommon with catfishes!) you may offer them a bit of every opportunity: plants either large leafed plants (Java fern, Echinodorus, Anubias), or fine leafed (Myriophyllum and Egeria), narrow leafed (Vallisneria) and other (java moss, najas) including floating plants (Eichornia crassipes, Pistia stratiotes). Finally use roots, plastic pipes of different diameters, clay pots, etc. as hiding/spawning places.
4) Do not feed white or black mosquito larvae before the spawning attempt. See above.
5) Choose healthy, adult specimens (respect the right sex ratio). They should be perfectly fit in order to be able to survive a two week – in tank - dry season period!
THEORETICAL Simulation scheme:
Day 1. Feed about 1/10 of normal. The lights should now have a level between full power and "cloudy", about 14 hours. Filter(s) is, still, running at full speed.
Day 2. Lower the water level about 10%, feed 1/10 of normal. Add some calcium carbonate and magnesium sulphate to raise total/carbonate hardness 1 degree. (An alternative is to take out 20% of the water and add half the amount with hard tap water if that's available.) Add a plant fertiliser according to instructions of your product (increases “salts” dissolved in water).
Day 3. Lower the water level about 10%, NO food at all. Increase the temperature about one degree.
Day 4. Lower the water level about 10%. Increase total/carbonate hardness 1 degree. Feed 1/10 of normal. Put peat, dry leaves (FYI: oak leaves are said to be the very best) , etc. in the water. Tannins etc. will be released from these items, over the coming days.
Day 5. Lower the water level about 10%, NO food at all. Increase the temperature about one degree. Decrease the flow by adjusting the filter. Check pH.
Day 6. Lower the water level about 10%, feed 1/10 of normal.
Day 7. Lower the water level about 10%. Increase total/carbonate hardness by 1 degree. Stop feeding until day 21. Increase the temperature about one degree.
Day 8. Lower the water level about 10%.
Day 9. Lower the water level about 10%. Increase total/carbonate hardness by 1 degree. Shut off air stone(s). Take out the filter and clean it. Let the filter run in another tank so it has a working bacterial culture when it's needed again.
Day 10. Lower the water level about 10%. The water level should, now, be down to 25% of the tank capacity. The temperature should be around 28 degrees. Put more peat, leaves, etc. in the water. Add plant fertiliser. Increase the lighting to max. Take away any floating plants. Start an infusoria culture. Check pH.
Day 11-19. Leave the fish in peace.
Day 20. Clean the filter that has been working in another tank. Decrease the lighting, both the intensity and the length (down to about 10 hours). Take out the peat, leaves etc. Check the pH.
Day 21. Put the floating plants back in. Add more plants of the type the fish like for spawning (if you’re aware about that, of course). Add clean, as soft as possible, water (preferably RO water), about 20% of the tank volume. The water should have about 3 degrees lower temperature than the tank. Put in the filter and run it at half speed if possible. One could try to turn off the light a couple of hours in the middle of the day (remember your timer!) to simulate thick clouds. Lower the temp on the heater 2 degrees. Feed a little with mosquito larvae and newly hatched brine shrimps. Add infusoria (tip: you may try a liquid food for egglayer’s fry) so that the water gets a slight cloudlyness.
Day 22. Add the equivalent of 20% of the tank volume. The water should be about 5 degrees lower in temperature than the tank. Run the filter at full speed and make it "splash" at surface. Lower the temp on the heater 2 degrees. Feed a lot and often. Add infusoria (see above) so that the water gets a slight cloudlyness. Add a vitamin product and plant fertiliser according to instructions of your product.
Day 23. Add the equivalent of 20% of the tank volume. The water should be about 5 degrees lower in temperature than the tank. Add aeration at a low level. Lower the temp on the heater 2 degrees. Feed a lot. Add infusoria (see above) so that the water gets a slight cloudlyness.
Day 24. Turn off the heater if the fish can take such low temperatures. Aeration is, now,at half speed. Fill the tank. The water (added) should be about 5 degrees lower in temperature than the tank. If you can, open a window during the night to lower the temp further. Feed a lot. Add infusoria so that the water gets a slight cloudlyness.
Day 25. Raise aeration at full speed. Change 50% of the water volume. Feed a lot.
Day 26- to ?. Carry on as day 25 until they spawn!
My, personal, path …
That’s (hereunder) what I, actually, did …
* were NOT used: too much of noise (thaht tank is, actually, kept in the kitchen!!!)
Following days are supposed to be, repetitively, as 26th untill spawn takes, hopefully, place …
Keeping it simple (or, at least, as simple as possible!):
1) Water (level) lowering log:
When removing water from tank (gross total capacity 75 lt), I did it like this:
· days 2 to 7 (included): 5 ltrs/day
· day 8: 2.5 ltrs
· day 9: 5 ltrs
· day 10: 2.5 ltrs
2) Water (level) raising log
· day 21: 10 liters
· day 22: 10 liters
· day23: 10 liters
· day 24: 10 liters
I used – to void starting, on my own, a culture since I do NOT know, absolutely, what to do - a liquid food (of the kind dedicated to livebearers) which is said to allow a, quick, infusoria growth in the tank itself.
3) Modifying parameters:
Under George’s suggestion I added (whenever is requested to rise KH/GH):
· Magnesium sulphate: 1 gr/25lt Calcium carbonate: 0.6 gr/35 lt
At this regard, that’s how my chemistry changed (during passing days)
DISCLAIMER: Readings on the 20th days have been taken in a hurry (for absolute personal needs) and I’m not that sure on how accurate they, actually, are! At any rate having a look to these data isn’t that difficult to understand why Ancistrus are, despite they come from the Amazon basin, among …cichlid’s best freinds!
To get the opposite result (lower chemical values) I, simply, used RO water (see: water level raising log).
4) Oddities, reported … for the sake of curiosity:
· Whenever opening the tank cover (while mimicing the “dry season”) one thing, at the same time, puzzled and “fashinated” me: the smell coming out, resembling – unbelievable as it may seem – the REAL smell we’re used to “breath” while staying, back there, in the Peruvian Jungle! Really do NOT know why … … but it’s quite the same. A question arises, then, am I on the right track?
FINAL REMARKS: The breeding procedure has been followed (and kept to an end. Btw!) as faithfully as possible; the routine maintenance of the tank has (once again) begun. All I have to do now is wait … (and hope?) Well folks, despite I haven’t seen, till now, any offspring I, all the same, consider this experience as EXTREMELY pleasant AND interesting. I focused myseft on problems far away from those related to Rift Valeey cichlids (such as totallly different water levels during the year, dietary needs, lightning and water chemistry only to name a few) handling with them to my very best (or the best of my knowledge!) and gaining information ,any way, interesting and – likely – usefull in the future. I’m, now planning to give these fishes a really long resting period (after all in wild dry/rain seasons alternate over long stretches of time) before, just in case, give a try to a further, different breeding protocol I got aware about …
To finish – at last – the story here comes a shot of my male, in the tank, once the water has returned to its average level and the tank is, once more, routunely kept … At least plants are getting on consistently well …:
The male, bristles (on nose!) are clearly in sight, just in case look at its shape along the yellowish stone in the background. See next page for some pictures taken during this attempt.
Many thanks to Carli De Busk for her editorial help.