By Vinny Kutty
The evolution of pike cichlids seems to have taken paths that make it relatively easy to classify them in groups. KULLANDER and PLOEG separately formed these groups to aid classification and identification. Ploeg (1991) adopts five groups while Kullander a few more. The 1982 establishment of the lepidota group by Kullander began this trend of species grouping that may be familiar to keepers of Apistogramma species. The lepidota and saxatilis groups are now considered one and the same. Saxatilis, lugubris, lacustris, reticulata and wallacii are the five major groups; species of the missioneria, minuano and scotti groups are very rarely encountered in the hobby. Each species group is named after a representative species with saxatilis and strigata groups possessing the most number of species.
I have kept species from six of these groups and identification of fish from the saxatilis group is often the most challenging. They, however, are also the easiest of all pikes to induce spawning in aquaria. Creating a comprehensive key for the identification of the more than 40 species in the group is well beyond my reach. A partial key for the saxatilis group may be found in Ploeg (1991). I regularly encounter species that confound my best efforts at pinning a species name on it. In this article, I want to initially discuss their husbandry and then provide some tips on identifying these fascinating and hardy cichlids.
These are medium to large cichlids with most remaining under 12 inches; some species like C. britskii and a couple of undescribed species from Colombia remain under 6 inches. So, housing most pikes requires a fairly large tank. I have successfully managed to spawn many of these species in 55 and 75-gallon tanks but for expression of their true behavior and safety of the other fish in the tank, it would be desirable to have larger quarters. Any tank smaller than four feet in length will most likely result in numerous and rapid deaths of unpaired conspecifics during the initial pair bonding process. Any unpaired specimen spared the wrath of the amorous couple at this time will be severely dealt with and sent to its maker after a spawn hatches. And then, should the female need to get away from the larger male for any reason, a small tank could not offer sufficient hiding places. Prevent all this mayhem and choose a large tank. 55-gallons will suffice if you are resigned to accepting some body count.
These fish are ambush predators in the wild, spending their time lurking near cover, usually near sunken tree logs. They prey upon the numerous tetras and other smaller fish and invertebrates abundant in their habitat. Shrimp are found everywhere in the Amazon and stomach contents analyses have confirmed this. The diet of some of their prey could easily be plant materials and thus the pikes indirectly derive nutrients from plants. Some species like C. proteus from Peru are adept egg thieves; the speed and skill with which they accomplish this task has to be seen to be believed and indicates some instinctive biology. In my 240-gal. tank, a lone C. proteus male would decimate the eggs of a sympatric Chocolate cichlid (Hypselecara temporalis) pair in a day, often using large Heros appendiculatus or Uaru as cover to sneak up on the egg-guarding parents. It was fascinating to watch. These three species, other than the Uaru, can easily be collected together in any of the Cochas or lakes around Iquitos, Peru.
When small specimens are imported from the wild, they often are in need of nutrition and I find they are easily converted onto pellets at this age. Adult wild pikes are usually not interested in eating prepared dry foods. It is always a good idea to heavily feed a newly imported pike with live foods to get its immune system and health back to top shape. Attempts at feeding frozen and prepared foods may be made after this point. Some believe that feeding live foods exclusively in the beginning will make it harder to convert them over to pellets later. This is usually not true but it is more important to return your pike to health after its capture and stressful transportation. Every saxatilis group pike I’ve kept has eventually learned to eat pellets but in some cases it took a year for that to happen. These fish may even be conditioned to spawn with only prepared foods although I highly recommend you include various live and frozen foods. The temptation to feed live goldfish, while appreciated by your pike, can be very dangerous as feeder goldfish can often bring in diseases. If you must feed goldfish, be certain to give the goldfish a very strong saltwater dip.
Pikes of this group typically are extremely hardy and do not easily succumb to any passing illness. This, of course, should not be an excuse for sloppy water quality maintenance. These fish look and act much happier with a weekly water change. Large water changes are appreciated and often trigger spawning. Saxatilis group pikes are similar to large Central American cichlasomines in their hardiness, territoriality, aggression and water requirements. Anyone keeping Central American cichlids should be able to keep and breed these fish with little change in their husbandry routine. I have always kept these species in conditioned (treated for chloramine) tap water and they have always spawned. These fish are not exclusive black water residents but they occasionally occur in very soft and acidic waters in the wild. It is possible that some of the undescribed species originating from eastern Colombia and the Orinoco system, like C. sp. "Bocon" and C. sp "Puerto Ayacucho" may require soft, acidic water for reproduction. In my experience, the above Orinocoan species seem a bit more sensitive, but most saxatilines are generally quite happy even in hard, alkaline water. Extreme pH values result in decreased appetite and increased susceptibility to illnesses.
Aggression management is a skill you will learn with these fish; they don’t pose an insurmountable challenge but forethought is certainly desirable. Juvenile spangled pikes don’t like each other but will tolerate and learn to live together and grow provided you give the vanquished specimens refuge in the form of PVC tube sections. PVC tubes are unattractive but are very useful in raising these fish to adulthood and eventually (hopefully) a compatible pair. They will establish dominance over most other genera of cichlids of the same size but will not harm them. I have housed Laetacara thayeri and Biotodoma cupido with pikes without any harm befalling these more peaceful species. Crenicichla of the same and other species are usually the targets of aggression, with members of the same species bearing the majority of the punishment. Leniency towards other genera comes to a sudden halt once a pair decides to spawn, at which time, all cichlids should be removed for their safety. Some large, tough dither/target fish like Red Hook Tetras are useful companions at this time. If the pair bond is not stable and you see aggression between the newly formed couple, you may want to reintroduce a sacrificial conspecific or some other cichlid – this often tightens the budding bond. Be certain to provide plenty of cover for the soon-to-be-killed specimen. It may also be advisable to keep other pikes visible in a nearby tank during breeding.
Breeding these fish is not as hard as some hobbyists believe. The toughest part is getting a compatible pair. As with most cichlids, buy about half a dozen fish of the same size and feed well until you see differences in sexes – the sexes are easy to distinguish. Females usually develop a thin white line under the rim of the dorsal fin and begin sporting a pink belly. Males often have herringbone-like muscle striations on the side of the body. Once adult sexual characteristics have developed, if you have both sexes available, they will begin courting. This happens when these fish are often only 4 or 5 inches long. After eliminating tankmates, they will lay about 300-400 eggs in a cave or in nooks of driftwood. All known pikes are cave-spawners. The eggs are attached to the substrate by a thin filament. The fry are free-swimming in about a week, which is usually shorter than in the lugubris group, and are capable of consuming freshly hatched brine shrimp. They fry growth is very rapid and some cannibalism will occur if not separated by size.
Other than aggression-management pre and post spawning, there is little challenge in spawning these fish. One to two months post spawning, the males often begin to harass the females and in the absence of target fish and a large tank, the females sometimes perish. The lone male will apathetically guard his brood for another week or so and may sometimes begin eating them. This situation has happened to me with three (C. saxatilis, C. proteus and C. menezesi) species. In retrospect, it may have been a good idea to remove the fry and reintroduce additional target fish, the previously rescued members of the same species. I have noticed very stable pair bonds in C. lepidota, C. frenata, C. sveni and C. lucius after spawning and have remained compatible for years. Perhaps my experiences would have been different had my tanks been bigger.
Differentiating between species groups is not difficult but members within the saxatilis group are very similar. Saxatilis group species can be identified by their characteristic shoulder spot (humeral blotch) behind the gill cover. This spot is occasionally circular and is often surrounded by a light ring. In many of these species, notably males of the coastal forms from northern South America have a lot of silver-white spangling along the flank, thus giving rise to the group-wide common name of Spangled Pikes. Extreme form of this pattern is evidenced in C. saxatilis and C. frenata. Conversely, species from western Amazon, with the exception of C. sp. aff. anthurus (False Anthurus), do not sport spangling. Most species have a dark line running from the mouth through the eye that ends at the gill cover or sometimes reaches all the way to the tip of the tail. Some species like the frequently imported C. sveni and C. frenata have a chain of saw tooth-like dark blotches below the lateral line, stretching from the gill cover to the caudal peduncle. The saxatilis group species also have a tail spot on the upper portion of the caudal peduncle, a trait shared with other groups. The sexes are easy to distinguish, as all species are sexually dimorphic. Adult females usually remain smaller, possessing a pink belly, fewer if any spangling than the males and a thin white line under the outer margin of the dorsal fin. Females of C. sveni, C. albopunctata and C. proteus have one or more small black spots on the dorsal fin. In aquarium shops, most of these fish have a brownish gray base coloration with vertical fright bars and the females seldom show indications of their future color and beauty.
There are about 25 described (and over a dozen undescribed) saxatilines and they are all closely related. They look very similar to the untrained eye and I spent many years incorrectly calling most saxatilines either C. lepidota or C. saxatilis. C. lepidota is a southern species with a distinct oblique stripe under the eye, with smaller spangling and a chunkier appearance than C. saxatilis, which is a coastal species found north of the Amazon delta. Their distributions are separated by at least a thousand miles. Here's a cliche: the real C. saxatilis is rarely found in the tanks of North American hobbyists. Many species have gone under this recognizable name. Recently, C. sveni, a newly described species from Rio Meta, Colombia and an undescribed form from Guyana have been making the rounds as C. saxatilis.
One of the difficulties in identification is the rarity of good, correctly identified color photographs of many of these species. The publication of Aqualog Southamerican Cichlids I has eased this problem a little bit. While most photographs are correctly identified, there are still a few misidentifications in the publication. The ultimate Crenicichla identification guide has yet to be written. The collecting location of a species is crucial in its correct identification. There are many species I am visually unfamiliar with and these are the fish that particularly require a collection locality. As with most similar-looking species, many of these pikes begin to look quite different after housing them side-by-side. There are many markings and clues that can be used in arriving at identification.
Correct identification of saxatilines requires the owner to be able to accurately describe some physical characteristics. Fin and scale counts are very helpful but these are difficult figures to obtain for the average hobbyist. Dimensions of anatomical parts as a percent of the standard length of the fish can also be used to accurately describe these fish but these figures are even harder to establish than fin counts and, arcane technical references for comparison may not help the average hobbyist. Assuming you have adult fish, ask yourself the following questions:
Assuming you have a saxatiline in hand, you will immediately be able to delete, by the process of elimination, most species based on its point of origin as many have restricted distributions. Now you are left with a handful of potential species. Let's say your fish has a suborbital stripe, an important identifying characteristic. There are only about 4 or 5 saxatilines with this characteristic. If the fish is from Tocantins, you have your id: Crenicichla labrina. C. semicincta and C. santosi are the two others with suborbital stripes but these two occur farther west in the Amazon in Peru and the Brazil-Bolivia border region. The fourth species is C. lepidota from the Parana system. C. sp. Inirida is another one but it occurs in Colombia. This is only an example of identification using the process of elimination. The same exercise could be done with dorsal fin ocelli, position and ocellation of shoulder spot, degree of spangling etc. Most of these fish share the handful of physical characteristics I’ve discussed here but the combination of these traits is what physically distinguishes one species from another.
There are other species that require additional references to identify. Ploeg's thesis is a marginally good source of information for the hobbyist but it is difficult to track down and has a growing list of errata. Kullander's monographs and papers are extremely helpful as usual. The Stawikowski and Werner book is a good source but their identification of some species is questionable: a northern saxatiline is misidentified as C. lepidota and an undescribed fish is referred to as C. lucius. These errors, I am certain, will be addressed in Volume 2 of the new edition of the book (as yet unpublished in Fall 2000). See reference section for additional information.
If you are unable to acquire any of the critical reference papers, you'll at least be able to tell what species your fish is NOT, by reading this article, which may not pacify your curiosity but is of some consolation. I find a fish more valuable, although no less interesting, if I know the correct species designation. You also have to accept that you may have an undescribed species. The upper regions of many rivers in the Amazon have not been explored and may yield many surprises. Almost all saxatilines from the Orinoco system are undescribed. An undescribed saxatiline capable of reaching 6-8 inches has been making the rounds as C. sp. Venezuela Dwarf - it is not a dwarf. To paraphrase Wayne Leibel, ‘ichthyological sleuthing’ can become a hobby in itself when you take an interest in pike cichlids.
There is more than one species that, for example, possesses circular humeral spot or lack suborbital markings. Once you're able to physically describe your specimen, the following chart may help narrow down your fishes’ id.
Described saxatilines with:
The list above is for described species only and is by no means comprehensive. Use this as a jumping off point for your ichthyological sleuthing.