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  • Species: Aulonocara baenschi

  • Species: Aulonocara stuartgranti

  • Species: Copadichromis borleyi

  • Species: Iodotropheus sprengerae

  • Species: Labidochromis caeruleus

  • Species: Aulonocara jacobfreibergi

Aulonocara, the Peacock Cichlids, at Maidenhead Aquatics, Syon Park

07 May 2010


The peacock cichlids that make up the genus Aulonocara are a group of haplochromine cichlids famed for their modest size, bright colours, and generally easy care. They are favourite additions to Malawian community tanks, being just as vivacious and colourful as mbuna but much less aggressive. As such they make good choices for maintenance alongside other less-aggressive Lake Malawi cichlids such as Iodotropheus, Labidochromis, Cyrtocara and Placidochromis.

Several Aulonocara are routinely traded, with a few other species turning up only occasionally. As with many cichlids, hybridisation can be a problem when more than one species is kept together. Hybrids may or may not be attractive fish, but they rarely match the bright colours typical of pedigree fish. The best places to obtain non-hybrid Aulonocara specimens are those stores specialising in carefully-bred and/or wild-caught specimens. One such retailer is Maidenhead Aquatics at Syon Park, a medium-sized branch that specialises in hard water cichlids. Besides the Aulonocara discussed here, this is a good store to find a range of other Malawian cichlids as well.

The Maidenhead Aquatics branch at Syon Park is within the garden centre part of the Syon Park estate. By road access is from Park Road on the western edge of the park, a short distance south of where the Park Road branches off from the A310/A315 junction. Parking is free. The nearest train station is Syon Lane; from the station walk south down Spur Road, then south again down Twickenham Road before veering off to the east along Park Road down to the main estate entrance, a distance of just over a mile. Bus route 235 stops on the London Road just east of the pedestrian-only entrance to the estate on this road.

Ecology

Aulonocara species generally inhabit one of three different habitats: rocky areas, open sandy areas, or intermediate areas combing both rocks and open sandy areas. Most favour the intermediate habitat, and by default this is the sort of environment the aquarist will want to create at home. This will involve the use of large rocks and boulders to create a reef with plenty of hiding places, while ensuring that at least half the tank is essentially open, with plenty of swimming space.

In the wild Aulonocara feed predominantly from the substrate, catching small invertebrate prey such as worms and insect larvae. Sometimes they thoroughly sift mouthfuls of sand, but at other times simply swim across the sand looking for suitable prey. They are not particularly adept diggers though, and under aquarium conditions can be housed alongside robust plants tolerant of Lake Malawi water chemistry, such as Vallisneria and Potamogeton spp. Males dig more than females though because their saucer-shaped ‘nests’ are an important part of their breeding behaviour. For this reason if plants are going to be used they will be best placed around the edges of the tank.

Although most Aulonocara come from fairly shallow water, typically 15-20 metres, there are exceptions. Several species are found in much shallower water, and recent surveys of the lake have revealed deep water Aulonocara at depths of more than 100 metres! As with other cichlids these fish show their best colours if the aquarium isn’t too bright, and a dark substrate with algae-covered or dark rocks and relatively subdued lighting works best.

Basic care

Maintenance of Aulonocara spp. is comparable to that of other Malawian cichlids. In other words, it is important to provide them with hard, alkaline water with a basic pH; aim for 15+ degrees dH, pH 7.5-8.5. The precise water chemistry values aren’t important, but they should be stable, so the provision of some sort of buffering will be important.

The usual approach is to include some calcareous material in the substrate, such as coral sand. Alternatively, a Rift Valley cichlid salt mix can be added to the water to provide the necessary levels of general and carbonate hardness. This can be bought from retailers or made up at home, one recipe using 1 teaspoon baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), 1 tablespoon Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) and 1 teaspoon marine salt mix per 20 litres.

As with all Malawian cichlids, zero levels of ammonia and nitrite are essential, and nitrate levels need to be as low as practical. Extremely robust filtration will be required, at least 8 times the volume of the tank in terms of turnover per hour. Weekly water changes of not less than 25% will also be required. When exposed to chronically high nitrate levels these fish are prone to Hexamita infections such as those causing wasting and ‘hole-in-the-head’ disease. Aim to keep nitrate below 20 mg/l.

Although not as aggressive as most mbuna, these cichlids are still territorial and require a fair amount of space. For a mixed sex colony, the aquarium will need to be at least 1 metre in length if it is to provide enough space, and that will usually demand an aquarium upwards of 150 litres in capacity for the smaller Aulonocara species, and twice that for the bigger species. Overcrowding cichlids can diminish their aggression, but the cost is increased nitrate levels, faster acidification, and the need for far more robust filtration, so casual aquarists will probably find that approach difficult to do and unrewarding. Remember, poor water quality leads to sickness, and a large number of unhealthy cichlids will be much less fun than a smaller collection of healthy, brightly-coloured specimens.

Diet

As noted earlier, Aulonocara are carnivores. Favourite food items would include bloodworms, brine shrimps, krill, mysids, daphnia, and so on, whether live or wet-frozen. However, these cichlids readily take flake and pellet foods, so a good diet would include a mixture of these things.

As with cichlids generally, overfeeding is easy to do but can cause problems, so some care needs to be taken with portion control. Properly fed specimens will be alert and eager to take another meal. Their bellies will be gently convex rather than swollen. Only overfed specimens will have obviously rounded bellies. Constipation is a particular problem if given too little fibre or indigestible material. Cooked or tinned peas are a good laxative, as is spinach, though live brine shrimp and daphnia may be more readily accepted alternatives.

Social behaviour

Male Aulonocara claim small territories in open sandy areas, while the females are more or less gregarious. When kept in small tanks, Aulonocara are best maintained as a simple harem, with one male and two or more females. In systems 250 litres upwards it is possible to keep multiple males, the bigger and more aggressive species needing a bigger tank if they are to coexist. Besides space, the tank will need to be decorated such that each male can claim his own patch of open sand. This could be done by creating several rocky reefs that divide up the sandy floor, or plants might be used to break up the line of sight. Bear in mind that in the wild male Aulonocara will be excavating ‘nests’ up to 60 cm in diameter, which gives some idea of the amount of space individuals males will require.

There is some variation in the degree of aggression exhibited by Aulonocara. To some extent this depends on their adult size, the bigger species tending to be a bit more aggressive than the smaller species, but this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule by any means. At the mellower end of the scale are Aulonocara baenschi, Aulonocara maylandi and Aulonocara stuartgranti, while Aulonocara sp. “Stuartgranti Maleri”, Aulonocara gertrudae and Aulonocara jacobfreibergi tend to be quite a bit rougher and will need proportionally more space if serious fighting is to be avoided.

Aulonocara should always be maintained in a single-species group if breeding is the intention. Different Aulonocara species will hybridise readily, resulting in unwanted hybrids. These hybrid offspring will be difficult to sell, and doing so is unethical anyway, so if produced should be humanely destroyed. But if maintained in a single-species set-up, any fry will be easy to sell because aquarists and aquarium shops are so keen to obtain good quality Aulonocara specimens.

Male Aulonocara are prone to becoming ‘hyperdominant’ under some circumstances.

Tankmates

Aulonocara expect to be the ‘top dog’ in any aquarium, and tankmates should be chosen with that in mind. More aggressive species will cause them considerable stress, and stressed fish will not colour up properly.

Mbuna do not make good companions for Aulonocara. The only real exceptions are species from the genera Iodotropheus and Labidochromis. The Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus sprengerae) and the Yellow Lab (Labidochromis caeruleus) are two classic choices, the latter especially providing a bright yellow contrast to the reds and blue typical of Aulonocara spp. Since these mbuna stay close to the rocks they don’t compete too much with the Aulonocara for swimming space, ensuring that the tank is evenly filled out. Otherwise mbuna cichlids are best left out of the Aulonocara aquarium; they are just too aggressive and are likely to stress or physically damage the Aulonocara eventually.

Midwater haplochromines can work well if dissimilar in colouration. Among these are the ‘utaka’ such as Copadichromis, Mchenga and Nyassochromis spp. These fish occupy similar niches to Aulonocara in the wild but feed on zooplankton rather than from the substrate, so given space all these fish will coexist reasonably well. Among the utaka, Copadichromis borleyi is perhaps the most widely traded, but other species will be seen as well.

The smaller and milder Aulonocara such as Aulonocara baenschi can make good companions for fish other than Malawian cichlids. Australian rainbowfish of appropriate size get along well with them, as can the larger and more robust livebearers, particularly swordtails. They have also be combined with rock-dwelling Tanganyikan cichlids, but this works best if the Tanganyikan cichlids are relatively small and non-aggressive, i.e., not feisty things like Tropheus spp.

Breeding

Aulonocara are maternal mouthbrooders. Given the right conditions, including the correct tankmates, if any, breeding should take place without much effort on the part of the aquarist. As stated before, hybridisation is extremely likely in tanks where more than one species is combined. Sexual dimorphism is pronounced: males tend to be bigger and much more brightly coloured, and males also have yellow egg spots on their anal fins. Females may have egg spots too, but rarely as many, and their colouration is limited to shades of grey with vertical banding. In fact female Aulonocara all look very similar, which is why it is so important to buy them from trustworthy retailers.

Most Aulonocara spawn in the open, upon crater-like ‘nests’ produced by the males. There are some exceptions though, Aulonocara jacobfreibergi for example being one of the cave-spawning species. Once spawning has occurred the males play no further role in reproduction. Females incubate the eggs for 2-3 weeks, during which time they do not feed. Females are at risk of being harassed by the males, so it’s important that they have refuges of some sort in the aquarium. Serious breeders will isolate the female using a tank divider or else move her -- or the male -- to another aquarium.

As with most other mouthbrooding cichlids, once the fry are free swimming they will begin feeding and are generally easy to rear. Besides algae and detritus, they will consume finely powdered flake food, liquid fry food, and small live foods like brine shrimp nauplii.

Species roster

Aulonocara are routinely on sale at Maidenhead Aquatics at Syon Park, including some classic species much loved by hobbyists. One of the most popular Aulonocara is the Yellow Peacock Cichlid, Aulonocara baenschi. This is fairly small species, wild species reaching a maximum length of 9 cm. However, like other Aulonocara, this species usually gets a bit bigger in the aquarium, the males reaching as much as 15 cm. Females are comparatively drab fish, essentially grey with dark vertical bands and a slight yellow sheen on the belly and fins. But the males are lovely, bright yellow with dark blue squiggles on the face and light blue markings on the dorsal and tail fins. Aulonocara baenschi is a fairly peaceful cave-spawning species, and a male may be kept with a few females in a 150 litre Malawian community tank without problems.

The peacock known as the Sunshine Peacock has several Latin names, including Aulonocara sp. “Stuartgranti Maleri” and Aulonocara baenschi “maleri”. It is broadly similar to the Yellow Peacock Cichlid in overall appearance, but with less intense yellow colouration and more blue on its flanks. Basic care is similar to Yellow Peacock Cichlid but because this species is a little larger, it demands a bit more space.

The Malawi Butterfly or Jake, Aulonocara jacobfreibergi, is another favourite. It is unusual in being a cave-dwelling species that rarely strays far into the open sandy areas. Spawning takes place within caves. Numerous colour forms are recognised from different parts of the lake. Most are blue with varying amounts of red, orange and yellow on their bodies and fins. A particularly popular form is known as the Otter Point or Eureka Cichlid, sometimes traded as Aulonocara “eureka”. All Aulonocara jacobfreibergi are comparatively aggressive, and with adult lengths of 15 cm or more need to be given plenty of space; consider 150 litres the absolute minimum for a small group, and 200 litres or more a more realistic estimate.

The Red or Emperor Peacock Aulonocara nyassae is a fairly easy-going intermediate zone Aulonocara that spawns in the open. Maximum length is around 17 cm. This species needs a large aquarium, 250 litres or more. Several colour forms are traded under this species name, which may not may not be true Aulonocara nyassae.

The Regal Peacock Aulonocara stuartgranti is one of the most popular species of peacock cichlid. Wild specimens only get to about 10 cm in length, but in captivity the species gets much bigger than that, up to 15 cm. Males are rough on one another but otherwise this species is tolerant of dissimilar tankmates. Again, a fairly large tank, 200 litres or larger, is required to keep this species successfully. Numerous colour forms are known and traded.