If you are thinking of purchasing Cyphotilapia frontosa, that’s great. But if you’re not, maybe you should be! I first saw its picture in one of the several books I had on African cichlids. I fell in love with this handsome cichlid, the strikingly vivid black and white vertical stripes on its sides, the bright blue highlights in its finnage and cheeks, and the intriguing hump on its head.
In case you didn’t know, they are mouthbrooding African cichlids endemic to Lake Tanganyika, which have spawns of 90+ large-sized eggs approximately every two or three months. They are an extremely hardy fish and are immune to most diseases. Because of their size (fully mature males may grow up to 14″) and partially because of their non-aggressive nature, I don’t know of any Tanganyikan species that will pick a fight with a frontosa; nor will the frontosa fight or look for trouble with other cichlids.
They are, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful, healthy, and intelligent cichlids available and will certainly enhance any hobbyist collection. Although I started my frontosa collection with just two small 1.5-inch fry, my enthusiasm and love for this beautiful fish have led me to establish more and more breeding colonies. After many years of trial and error, I have developed what I believe to be a successful breeding program for this cichlid. As I have frequently been asked questions by other hobbyists about what I have done to accomplish this, I will dedicate the rest of this article to that subject. Below are some of the more frequently asked questions and my recommendations and observations regarding the matter.
What size should I start with?
Starting with a breeding-size colony of frontosa can be very expensive ($60- $70 each) and a large tank is required, but if you have the tank and the money, go for it! I would recommend that anyone interested in frontosa should start with a small fry and a lot of patience. These small fry can be raised with any other cichlid fry of approximately the same size until they are 2″ or larger and then they can be put into a community tank to grow to breeding size. You will enjoy them every day for about 1 1/2 to 2 years until they reach breeding age or size (about 5 inches for females and 7 inches for males).
How many frontosa can I put in a tank?
To stock a breeding tank, 1 male, and 1 or 2 females can be bred in a 50-gallon tank. I have found that a 3rd female could not find a ground territory and therefore could not come down to the ground to spawn, or after spawning, find a quiet haven to brood. In a 90g or larger tank, a colony of 2 males and 6 or 7 females seems to produce the best results. If this colony has been raised together from small fry, no trouble should be encountered. However, if you are putting together a colony of new breeding size fish, be very watchful. Preferably one male should be older and dominant and the younger male should be submissive to him.
Hopefully, all these fish will settle their territorial and status problems without fatalities. It can be done if you keep close watch and remove any fish before it is fatally injured. Once a fish has been “kicked out” of a tank, it is almost impossible to get accepted back in that tank. You will have to find a place for it in another tank, establish a new tank, or sell/trade it.
What’s the best way to set up my tank?
In setting up a breeding tank for frontosa, a 50 gallon or larger tank is preferred. A minimum number of rocks, plants and ornaments should be used. Live or artificial plants will be quickly uprooted, eaten or destroyed by the frontosa. Large upright rocks, large clay flower pots, large clay or PVC pipe and slate make excellent building material. These should be strategically placed on top of a 2″ bed of dolomite gravel. A breeding cave in which the male will settle down and call home should be built on one side of the tank. This cave should be high enough for the male to rest comfortably without lowering his dorsal fin and wide enough for a female to visit, side by side, when she is ready to spawn. Each female in the tank should have her own territory and cave, preferably just big enough for her alone and far away from the breeding cave.
After a female has spawned, she must leave the breeding cave and return to her own secluded haven to brood as peacefully as possible. It is advisable to study the territorial requirements of the fish in your tank. Some fish are satisfied with a small area, others may try to dominate the whole tank. Each female should have “ground” territory, an area she is allowed to occupy on the bottom of the tank. If possible, she should have a cave on the ground level but a cave on a second level will give her a haven for brooding. Jealous females will sometimes fight a brooding female to make her spit her eggs.
I start with a cave for each female but sometimes have to add another and another until there are enough hiding places for everyone. When all the females look comfortable and are not being chased by another female, the tank is properly set up. The frontosa like to swim in open water and do not particularly “hide” in a cave. They just need one for brooding and to escape into when being chased. Maybe they, too, have times when they just want to be alone. Cyphotilapia frontosa also like a quiet, dimly lit tank and seem to do the best when the water is kept clean and the temperature constant. I prefer keeping the temperature between 76 and 78° F and make small 10% water changes weekly. Although I have a double strip-light on my larger tanks, I only keep one side lit.
How can I tell if my fish are ready to spawn?
My frontosa seem to prefer spawning when my back is turned! If you want to catch them in the act, check the females every morning before feeding to see if their egg tube is protruding. If it is, the female is ready to spawn and you will notice that the male is following or staying close to her. Once they start to spawn, if conditions are very good the spawn can be finished in less than 10-15 minutes; other times it may take one-half hour or longer, depending upon the number of interruptions and amounts of eggs being laid.
What is the breeding process like?
Large male frontosa are slow moving. They do not chase and court the females vigorously like Lake Malawi fishes. They seem to watch the females and when one is ready to spawn the male will swim slowly past her and give her a signal to go to the breeding cave. If she is ready, she will go directly to the breeding cave to start spawning. The male will follow her and stay with her throughout the spawning period. He will stand guard behind the cave to chase away any unwelcome intruders while keeping an eye on the female as she lays her eggs and picks them up for storage in her buccal cavity. Periodically he will enter the cave beside her, quivering while he releases the sperm to fertilize the eggs in her mouth. After the female has spawned, she must leave the breeding cave and return to her own territory or brooding heaven. If the female is reluctant to follow the male to the breeding cave, he may pass by her a couple of times, giving the wig-wag tail signal. If she does not go to the cave after a few passes, the male may lunge at her and chase her until she does go.
What If the female refuses to spawn?
I have found that if a female will not breed, the male will eventually attack and kill her. This may be because she is too old or maybe because they just don’t like each other. Cyphotilapia frontosa who are too young to breed are not usually attacked by older males or females.
Frontosa do have strong likes and dislikes. To breed successfully, they have to be compatible, You can’t just put a male and a female together and say “breed” – sometimes they will and sometimes they just won’t. I have observed that on one occasion when the female did not like the dominant breeding male, she went into a corner, laid and picked up her eggs and then slyly went over to the younger male to get them fertilized.
Sometimes, of course, the dominant male catches on to what is happening and attacks the younger male or both of the partners, breaking up the spawn. If there are enough females in the tank, the dominant male may share the tank with a younger male if he is compatible. It is a good idea to have a backup male in case anything happens to one of them.
It can be tragic if you lose an older dominant breeding male because they are hard to replace and some females may not ever take to a new male. I have had females who would attack or not spawn with a new male, even though the new male was much larger than the females. Sometimes the females would eventually come around if the new male was strong enough to beat them into submission. Another case calling for careful watch until the fish settle their problems without casualty. I am fortunate in having several large tanks of frontosa. When a female won’t spawn with one of the males in the tank and is being severely attacked, I rearrange another tank, put the troubled female in it and watch to see if she is accepted. I have found that if given a choice of males, a breeding female will eventually spawn.
How should I feed my adults following a spawn?
I usually check out my tanks before feeding and if there is a spawn imminent or in progress, I turn out the light and skip feeding that tank for the next 24 hours. Some foods, particularly brine shrimp or freeze-dried krill, are very apt to cause a female to abort a spawn. I have seen a female holding a mouthful of eggs dive into a cave and come up with an empty mouth ready to gobble such delicacies! I play it safe and let the female get used to holding her eggs for a few days. I just feed flake food or pellets and keep an eye on the brooding female.
How can I tell if a female will hold her eggs?
If a brooding female turns her back or looks the other way when the tank is being fed, she will usually hold successfully. If the brooding female goes after the food at feeding time and “noses” the food, I hold my breath through that feeding and strip her of her eggs as soon as possible. Interest in food usually indicates that she won’t hold very long and the sooner the eggs are taken from her the better.
Do you recommend stripping brooding females?
Yes. The difficulty is deciding when to strip each female. If I have found her to be a good holding female, I might not strip her until after 18-20 days; if I thought she was about to eat her eggs, I would strip her immediately after spawning. Once a female has been stripped early, before she has established what I think of as a “holding pattern,” I usually strip that female within 5-10 days after every spawn. Although a female may seem to have established a good holding pattern, I have found this can change. It is therefore, important to observe each brooding female after every spawn to determine the best course of action. Although it may seem cruel to strip them, there is a positive side to the story. The earlier you take the eggs away from the female, the more eggs or fry you will get and the less depleted she will get from not eating during the long holding period. The net result is that she will breed again sooner.
What do I do with the eggs once they are stripped?
When a brooding female is stripped after 18-20 days, the fry are developed enough to be free-swimming and you can just drop them into a 20g holding tank to grow for a few months. If the brooding female is stripped early, I put the eggs in a cone-shaped tea strainer with a handle that just fits across a 10g tank. I anchor a bubbleup filter box in a position where the bubbles come up in the center of the tea strainer with just enough force to gently turn the eggs and keep them moving. Three bubble-ups can be positioned in a 10g tank, with three cone shaped tea strainers across the top, if you need that many at one time. I also put 10-15 drops of methylene blue in the water to keep the eggs from becoming fungused and check the tank daily to remove any eggs that have turned white or gone “bad.” It is interesting to watch the eggs develop heads and tails and slowly, day by day, become more fish than eggsac.
Once they are free-swimming, beautiful little fry, you can drop them into the tank below to continue growing. They are almost an inch long by the time they are free-swimming and they grow faster than any fish I have ever had. They are born with and keep the same dramatic black and white vertical stripe pattern with tinges of blue in their finnage and cheeks.
How many fry can I expect from a spawn?
I suppose all hobbyists are interested in the size of spawns they should expect from their fish. Based upon my experience, I would say an average of 55 fry per spawn every two or three months could be expected with frontosa. Of course, there are the young females which may have between 18-30 fry and the mature females in their prime which may have between 50-90 fry per spawn. The largest spawn I ever got was 96 fry from a six year old female. The most important thing to remember is this: If you give your breeding stock excellent food and excellent breeding conditions, you will receive excellent spawns.
What can I do to get better spawns?
If a frontosa female is not producing enough fry, I believe there is a reason. I study the tank and breeding conditions if possible watching the spawning for any interference during the spawn. Sometimes it may be a jealous female who wants to get in on the act. Sometimes the rocks or cave position does not make it easy for the male frontosa to circulate freely to and from the breeding female. If the male has to use too much of his time and energy chasing other fish away, he cannot do a good job fertilizing the eggs. Sometimes the female may be afraid of an overly aggressive male and will not stay with him through a full spawn. A successful spawn should be relatively uninterrupted and unhurried. I try to arrange such a setting.
What you feed is equally important in producing good spawns. I feed a high protein diet twice a day and have found that plenty of frozen brine shrimp, frozen bloodworms, freeze-dried krill, all varieties of large flakes. Tetra DoroMin and pellets give me very good results. Sometimes I get the feeling that my frontosa will not spawn until I hand-feed the krill by poking it into their mouths until they stop coming up for more!
In summary, Cyphotilapia frontosa is an exciting fish to have in your collection. Start with as many fry as you can house or afford and with the proper tank set-up, social environment, and good nutrition they should prosper, reach the breeding size, spawn successfully and produce many healthy fry. If I could leave you with just one thought it would be: Think of your frontosa as “people” and you will have a better understanding of them!