By Paul Parks
The Apistogramma cacatuoides, commonly called the cockatoo dwarf cichlid because of the male’s long dorsal rays, is an egg laying, South American dwarf cichlid from the Amazon River basin. They are a curious species that can be placed in a community tank with similarly sized fish, although, I bred mine in a species only tank. Generally, the male and female have natural bronze tones and black accents. But commercially bred strains have red or orange fins. I worked with the triple red variant which can be identified by the red on the male’s dorsal, caudal, and anal fins. The females may get some color on these fins as well, but they lack much of the line-bred colors. When the female is ready to breed, she will be a brilliant yellow with vivid black markings. During breeding, the parent’s colors are more vibrant and intense. The female was 1.25” inches and the male 2.5”. Both fish were approximately eight months old and this was their first spawn.
The breeding setup was a sparsely planted 10-gallon aquarium with several line-of-sight breaks. The pair was comfortable in this size tank and neither of them showed any aggression toward each other. Java fern and java moss were provided for cover and to offer young fry additional surfaces to graze on microorganisms. Several locally collected oak leaves were placed on the sand and allowed to move freely with the current. The sand was a 50/50 mix of play sand and general-purpose sand. Large, medium, and small terracotta pots laid on their sides provided some caves and line-of sight breaks. For breeding there was a 1” CPVC pipe laid on the bottom. One end was capped and had several small holes drilled in the cap to promote water flow through the cave. The other end had a 1” x ¾” coupling to reduce the entrance diameter to the cave. The cave was then positioned lengthwise in the tank to take full advantage of the water current created by the Hamburg Matten Filter (HMF). At the base of the HMF was a small box filter with fine floss to remove suspended debris. A small portion of aragonite sand was behind the HMF to promote water hardness stability. The result was a stable environment that maintained constant parameters of pH 6.9, GH 3, KH 3, and nitrates less than 30 parts per million.
I used Raleigh tap water for all stages of breeding and rearing the fry. The water was treated with Seachem Safe mixed directly in the aquarium with adults and fry present. I routinely performed 50% water changes weekly until the fry were born. Once born, I switched to 25% water changes. After six weeks I continued with 50% water changes. The water temperature was maintained at 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooler water holds more dissolved oxygen but does not promote fast fry growth. This is a compromise that should only be accepted if you know the species can safely live in the cooler temperature.
The male and female entered the cave to spawn. Once spawning was complete the female stayed in the cave to defend approximately 25 pink eggs. This is a small clutch of eggs for A. cacatuoides, but this is a young pair and their future spawns may have 100 eggs or more. She left the safety of the cave to eat providing she didn’t have to venture far from the mouth of the cave. Occasionally the male would go near the entrance of the cave, but I never observed him trying to go inside. From spawn to free swimming is usually 8-10 days depending on water parameters. On day nine post spawn and in the cover of darkness, the mother and her brood disappeared into the leaf litter and java fern. Both parents guarded the fry. However, the fry stayed closer to the mother as she provided care at the micro level picking stray fry up in her mouth and returning them to the brood so they could forage for food together. The father patrolled the perimeter of the tank and spent much of his time flaring at the German blue ram fry in the adjacent grow-out tank.
Initially, I left the fry in the tank with the parents because I enjoyed watching the fry and parents interact with each other. Leaving the fry with the parents is risky since many dwarf cichlids will consume their fry when they are ready to spawn again. I usually pull the fry when I observe the parents begin to prepare their spawning site. In this case, the parents showed no sign of aggression towards the fry or preparing the cave to spawn again. The parents did not show interest in eating the fry before I moved them to a large, Marina breeder box. I think this was in part to the parents being fed a balanced diet. The fry ate the same food as the adults providing it was crushed into small pieces. They are not picky eaters and can be fed a combination of flake foods, Fluval Bug Bites, and baby brine shrimp two times per day. They will grow to approximately .375” to .5” in their first two months and will be ready to spawn in five to eight months.
I have another pair of Apistogramma cacatuoides I keep in a 75-gallon community tank and they are thriving. The key is to provide plenty of plants, caves, and driftwood for all species to feel comfortable. Locating the cockatoo dwarf cichlid from a local pet shop can be challenging. I highly recommend searching for a reputable breeder in your local club.
Paul Parks is a fish enthusiast and active member of the Raleigh Aquarium Society Breeder Award Program. He can be contacted by going to www.FishManiac.com or following him on Instagram @FishManiac_com.