(Editor's note: I first met William Garden on Facebook as Tannin was starting up. He was an "early adapter" to our company, and a kindred spirit regarding biotope aquariums, husbandry, and his love of Apistogramma dwarf cichlids. Okay, his obsession Apistos (and his knowledge) goes way beyond mine, and it shines through in everything he does. As any obsessed fish geek would do, he recently started an online business, The Cichlid Garden, which I hope becomes your online source for some amazing Apistos! We've been fortunate at Tannin to have William's unique point of view and beautiful pics and videos grace our blog, Facebook, and other social media, and I'm thrilled to have him sharing this cool piece and his pics with us today! Enjoy!- Scott F.)
(Apistogramma sp. Winkelfleck male)
Apistos, oh the wonderful Apistogramma. Did you know there are over 340 currently known species / collection-location-specific morphs? Maybe you did, or maybe you didn’t, but that’s a huge amount. So, what do I mean when I say "collection-location-specific morphs?" That’s really just a fancy way to say that fish from one location are different enough from some in another that that they shouldn’t be lumped together. For example, A. bitaeniata “Rio Tigre” and A. bitaeniata “Rio Pastaza” look dramatically different. An untrained keeper may even consider them different species.
(Apistogramma bitaeniata "Rio Pastaza" male)
So why is this possible? Well, Apistos don’t like fast moving water. (already your first note to keep in mind when building them a tank) At some point a few A. bitaeniata got washed along with too strong of flow, and down the river they went. They were from that point separate from their kin and Darwin’s theory took hold. This contributes to why this genus is so rich in its amount of species. There are very few genera with more species in them than the genus Apistogramma. It is one of the largest in South America. These fish are not like tetra, they don’t swim up and down fast moving rivers. They get separated from the main location, and suddenly they are off on their own and begin to evolve separately, eventually creating a completely new species. The group is so large it’s been separated into several complexes (large groups of fish that likely have a common ancestor) and then those large complexes were divided into groups (smaller groups of fish that are much more closely related). You could read up on these fish for years and still not be an expert, I know, because I’ve already done just that! There is just too much information out there to learn.
So, since they don’t like fast moving water where do they live? In general they live in small drainage ditches, canals, streams, shallow pools, tiny ponds, and puddles. Places you don’t think have enough water for fish are some of the best Apistos collecting spots! They call these igarapés.
(Apistogramma atahaulpa pair. )
Ok so enough with the introduction already, let’s talk about setting up a biotope for these fish to live in. Now keep in mind these fish are from nearly the entire northern part of South America. Their range is huge and there is no one setup is a biotope for all. What I will discuss is merely guidelines.
First, you need to decide what you think a biotope should be for you. My own personal tanks are not really biotopes in the most formal way of thinking. A formal biotope is one which will contain only plants and fish from a very specific location in the world. The sand will be the same color , the leaf litter will be from a tree of the region, or at the least something that looks the same, and if you were to go there in person you could scoop the fish in your tank out of the water there. These are not the biotopes I create. They are an amazing challenge to recreate, and very rewarding, however it was never my goal.
("Ammo" and "Nitro", who happen to be Apistogramma cacatuoides "Triple Red" males doing what rival males do...)
My version of a biotope is a tank that looks and feels like a piece of nature. Most Apistogramma biotopes do not have any submersed plant growth. This would leave you with a missing link in nature’s circle of life. Some people choose to fill this hole with floating plants. Others choose terrestrial plants native to the location, and allow their roots to grow down into the tank. I personally probably break the rule worse than any. I take any old plant I like and stuff it in there if it will grow. I use floating plants as well as submersed plants. Plants play a critical role in nature. They remove nitrates, waste, and even toxins from your water. I personally don’t want to risk this, so I use lots of plants, both floating and submersed. So decide what biotope means to you, and let’s proceed from there. Don’t be held down by a formal definition of the word, do what you deem best and if people want to say it isn’t a biotope, who cares? Call it something else if it suits you better.
So what do I feel is crucial to a good Apistogramma biotope? The tint! Does this mean your water needs to be brown? No, not really, it isn’t uncommon for Apistos to be found in clear water without the stain of tannins. However with or without the stain tannins are still there to some degree. I do not recommend using any form of mechanical filtration to remove tannins. Although some species are found in clear water, it is still beneficial to all species. If you want to remove some of the coloration (I refuse to use the sinful word of DIScoloration) than do a water change. A proper biotope will contain as much wood, leaves, seed pods, and sticks as you can muster. Use as much or as little as you deem fit.
So what don’t you put in? For the most part you won’t find rocks in an Apisto biotope. There are a few scattered around on occasion, maybe a small pebble here and there. In general, however, it’s more likely they won’t be there. In addition Apistos are found in very soft water that is quite acidic. Soft Acidic water eats away rocks and dissolves them. In your normal aquarium, a rock may not leech anything into the water column, but in an Apisto tank that same rock may raise the pH. Just avoid them.
Your tank size is important. A newly introduced male and female will often fight quite a bit. When they have not yet bred the male gets pushy and will beat on the poor girl, but once she lays eggs the tank will belong to her. Too small of a tank can really put a damper on things. Keeping a new pair in too small of a tank will often result in you being left with only 1 fish. Since Apistos don’t use vertical swimming space I give my recommendation in the floor plan of the tank. For every fish, you need about a 12” by 12” area of floor space. This means a tank 24” by 12” could house 2 fish. A 24” by 24” tank could house 4 fish. With this being said, I don’t recommend keeping 2 males in any tank that does not have at least 4 feet of width, regardless of depth. My go to tank size for a pair of Apistos is a 20 gallon long tank. For a trio I use a 30 or 40 gallon breeder, or often times I will keep only a pair in them. I prefer pairs over trios, however most species are highly polygamous, or at the least polygamous at times when the opportunity is there.
(Apistogramma sp. Abacaxis male)
Use fine grain sand! This one is important, even if it doesn’t seem so. Apistos like to sift sand through their gills. They do so to collect food, but it serves another purpose. It is thought that to an Apisto, sifting sand is the same as brushing teeth is to a human. It cleans their gills and keeps them parasite free. Maybe it even helps their breath, who knows? Either way make sure it is a very fine grade, as Apistos are small, and a large grain won’t go through their gills. If you’re trying to keep it natural, brownish colored sand is the most likely candidate. However I like black so it’s what I use.
Let there be light. Now that the horrible joke is out of the way, you’re actually better off without much light. They are surrounded by lots of leaf litter right? Where there are leaves, there are trees. Where they are trees, there is shade. Apistos live most of their life in the shade. They don’t need much light.
I’ll touch here on temperature. You want to keep your temp anywhere from 76°F to 80°F. I keep my tanks all at 79°F because I breed them. Temperature plays a pivotal role (among other things) in determining the sex of young Apistos. At 79°F you have the best odds of getting an even sex ratio.
(Some like it hot..Apistogramma cacatuoides "Triple Red" male)
The eternal scourge, algae! Algae isn’t a bad thing. We’ve grown to hate it, but it provides an important function. It does the same thing plants do, cleans your water, and it harbors microscopic life that fry and even some adult Apistos like to feed on. Don’t be afraid to let your algae grow a bit. Surprisingly, if you keep the glass clean you can actually grow some in a very visually pleasing way. If your dead set against it, try incorporating a moss into the scape somewhere.
Water chemistry is a fickle thing. There are no set parameters for the genus Apistogramma, because of the huge amount of species, and range. One thing in general though, they like the water very soft and acidic when possible. All my tanks run at a TDS of anywhere from 20-60 and a pH of about 5. Some species can however be found in mildly alkaline conditions or even medium hardness. If you aren’t planning on using RO water, find out which species can stand a bit higher mineral content in their water. Two examples I know of are A. cacatuoides, and A. sp. Winkelfleck.
In closing, this is merely a guide, not a rulebook. Don’t feel tied down to what I say. If you want to recreate an exact replica of the portion of river these fish come from, than do it! Find out what lives there and stick to it strictly. It can be a huge amount of fun. If not, get creative, get weird, and break a few rules. Do your homework, and learn about the areas your fish come from first. If you want contact me and I’ll help you out!
William Garden (Chance Peragine)