Geophagus brasiliensis by Paul Chassé
One of the first cichlids I ever really kept, and by that I mean kept for the specific purposes of observing the full spectrum of cichlid behavior, was Geophagus brasiliensis. My selection of this species among other cichlids was a bit haphazard and based on availability, but as it turns out, it was a very fortuitous one.
Geophagus brasiliensis are in a sense the black sheep of the eartheater family, as they are somewhat more aggressive than other eartheaters and hail from a different biotope. Indeed, there has been talk for years of reclassifying them into their own genus. While the majority of eartheaters live in the soft acidic rivers of South America, brasiliensis hails from the coastal waterways of Brazil and Uruguay. They are reported to venture into brackish waters, although they are clearly a freshwater fish. Perhaps because of this habitat, they are quite hardy and will adapt to a wide range of water conditions. Although ideally kept in slightly acidic to neutral, moderately hard water, they will accept quite a wide range of water parameters, including PH, temperature and hardness. In fact, they will probably adapt to the tapwater conditions of just about anywhere. They are also somewhat more forgiving of less-than-ideal water maintenance habits than many cichlids (although there are limits, and obviously clean water is always better).
Although juveniles are a rather uninspiring tan-olive color, as they grow they acquire the speckling that results in some of their common names (eg: Pearl-scale or Pearl cichlid). They can also (especially males) take on a pretty rainbow of red-ish coloring throughout their finnage. I found an occasional meal of beef heart would really bring out this coloring and induce breeding. Cichlid pellets were otherwise fine as a staple diet. Finally, as they age a prominent nuchal hump may grow, more frequently on males.
I purchased three 2” juveniles, hoping to get a pair out of them and return the third. They were put in an 18 gallon quarantine tank and for a week or two all seemed fine; what I didn’t bargain on, however, was a pair forming while they were still in the quarantine tank. Indeed, in the third or fourth week, before I got around to moving them into their eventual 77 gallon home, one was singled out and killed. Naturally I felt sheepish about this, but at the same time bolstered by the likelihood that I did indeed have a pair bonding!
The remaining pair were then moved into the 77 gallon, which contained a school of Rosy Barbs and a Bala Shark. At the time this was a lushly planted tank with lots of tall green stem plants of some sort, some cryptocorines, ludwigia, etc, well nourished with DIY CO2 and iron-rich laterite mixed into a very thick layer of fine gravel substrate. I took what I thought were reasonable precautions against digging, and the plantwork continued to thrive for awhile. The pair meanwhile continued to grow at a substantial pace. After only six months the male was a good 4.5”, with the female not too far behind, and breeding behavior was becoming more obvious. Although they are substrate spawners known to lay their eggs on flat rocks, on one or two occasions I could swear I saw what looked like a scattering of eggs attached to the glass… At any rate, it wasn’t long before a cloud of fry appeared slowly drifting around the substrate in search of food, always with one of the parents in attendance. It should be noted here that as parents, G. brasiliensis are excellent (for a few weeks anyways), and truly rewarding to observe. They would take turns, one guarding the fry while the other took perimeter duty, chasing away any other fish that got too close. At feeding time one fish would stay with the fry while the other went to the surface to feed; they then traded roles so the other parent could go for a bite. They would also chew up some vegetable matter and spit it out to the fry. Any fry straying too far from the herd would be taken into the attending parent’s mouth and released back into the swarm.
After a few weeks the parental care would start to lapse a bit, and while the parents were still ‘looking after’ the heard they also seemed to be thinning it out a bit (or perhaps snacking, as in “hmmm, I doubt anyone would notice if I just ate… this one!” From the young parents’ first spawn I originally estimated upwards of 75 fry. By the time they got to a size where the parents ignored them (½” to ¾”) there were 30 or so. It should be noted that when G. brasiliensis reach full maturity clutch sizes are reported to be several hundred eggs.
By now I was starting to learn about cichlid digging, and a bit of research confirmed I had probably chosen one of the most prolific excavators in G. brasiliensis. This was in part parental behavior – the fish would dig several deep pits in the substrate and herd the fry from one to the next each day. Whether done to ensure a continued food supply for the fry or to fool any potential predators I can’t say, however it seemed very deliberate. But as the fish grew it became obvious they just like to dig. Classified among the ‘eartheaters’, in the wild they are accustomed to sifting the substrate through their gill rakers for food. Whether this and the aforementioned breeding behavior are the sole explanations for the digging I can’t say, however they would regularly, within a day or two, take the whole 4” of substrate and literally pile most if not all of it up at one end or the other of that four foot tank. I would spread it out again and they would do it all over, tirelessly. Obviously only the hardiest of the plants survived for any length of time. Although the green stem plants grew like weeds, after two years there was no more vegetation in the tank, and the less hardy plant species had long since disappeared.
Another endearing trait of G. brasiliensis is that they grew to be very pet-like, always rushing to the glass and hand-feeding, even allowing themselves to be petted lightly. And there was definitely an element of owner recognition. Whenever I put my fingers in the tank they would nip away at them in anticipation. When I could convince visitors to try doing it the fish stayed away.
After a couple of years the male had grown to over 7” long and the female 6”. Several spawns had occurred in the interim, a couple of which I grew on and sold. There were a number of spawns where the eggs simply disappeared. Presumably the parents ate them, for whatever reason. The bala shark and a few of the rosy barbs were still there, tolerated by the brasiliensis mainly because they were too much trouble to catch. My impression is that tankmates for G. brasiliensis need to be large and tough but not too aggressive, or else fast enough to avoid them (and have adequate room to do so).
Eventually my relative inexperience with cichlids was the pair’s undoing. The amorous male kept nudging the female’s flank, looking for some spawning action, but the intent was not returned. This did not result in any aggression, but the male just kept nudging and the female kept ignoring. By the time I noticed that all the nudging was causing some serious raw patches it was too late – I removed the female to a hospital tank, but she succumbed to infection within two days. Had I known better I would have separated the pair in time and used the right medication to treat the wounds. It is also possible that the much-improved water maintenance habits I acquired in later years would have made a big difference.
Shortly following this incident a major household renovation forced me to sell the male, along with 4 juvies who had been grown on to near-breeding size and the other tank inhabitants. It should be noted that the male had become increasingly intolerant of the younger fish as they approached adulthood. Although Geophagus reportedly form nuclear families, or clans, in the wild I would have to believe a 4’ aquarium is too tight a confine to experience anything like that level of tolerance for a species that can reach near a foot in size.
Often overlooked because they are not the most eye-catching cichlids as juveniles, their hardiness plus all of the entertaining and fascinating behavior traits described above make Geophagus brasiliensis an excellent choice for a first-time experience with cichlids.