Hybrid cichlids can cause a number of potential problems in the hobby.
The demand for “new” and “different” breeds of hybrids such as the flowerhorn has lead to a number of cruel practices including tattooing of fish, removal of tails or eyes and intentional damage to the spine.
They make identification of similar cichlids difficult. The cichlids of genus Aulonocara are a good example of the potential problems associated with identification. The presence of many hybrid Aulonocara would make identification almost impossible.
Hybrid cichlids have the potential to be accidentally bred with “pure” species lines. This has already occurred in a number of cichlids commonly kept in the hobby, for example, Vieja synspilus or Amphilophus citrinellum.
The cichlid keeping hobby has responsibilities to the fish it is dedicated to in ecological terms. Although not currently standard practice, pure species may, in the future, be required for re-introduction to habitats currently under threat from urban development.
Some hybrid fish exhibit particularly deformed anatomical features which lead to troubles feeding, swimming and undertaking behaviour normal to these fishes. This is of considerable moral and ethical concern.
What is a hybrid?
The hybridisation of cichlids is not confined to captive bred cichlids. Central American cichlasomines, Lake Malawi mbuna and haplochromines or Lake Victoria cichlids will all readily crossbreed if not provided with appropriate mates in captivity. Only anecdotal information is available on the abundance of cichlid hybrids in the wild, mainly from observations of collectors. It must be noted, however, that this evidence suggests hybrids appear to be very rare in the field. It seems likely that in the confined space of an aquarium hybridisation is more likely to occur. Disturbingly two species that live side by side in the wild will not hybridise, but will do so once placed in an aquarium. Presumably this is due to some natural barrier which prevents hybridisation in their natural environment.
The accidental hybridisation of cichlids is a common problem in the hobby and most responsible aquarists cull the fry or eggs. This article focuses on the creation of hybrids for profit, and their unscrupulous marketing as a ‘new species’ of cichlid.
The term “hybrid” applies when a male from one species mates with a female from another species to produce fry or vice versa. Sometimes the term “crossbreed” is also used to denote hybrids. The two terms are interchangeable and mean pretty much the same thing. Hybridisation should not be confused with “inbreeding” or “line breeding”.
Examples of Common Hybrids
The most well known hybrid in the cichlid/aquarium hobby is the red blood parrot. The red blood parrot cichlid appears to be a hybrid between a South American cichlid, most likely the severum (Heros severus) and a Central American cichlid, possibly the midas cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellum), red devil (Amphilophus labiatum) or synspilum (Vieja synspilus). Due to the “unrelatedness” of the parent fish, red blood parrots appear to have limited fertility.
More recently it has been reported by hobbyists that the fish has actually spawned and raised fry. Generally by mating blood parrots with convict cichlids (Archocentrus nigrofasciatum), unfortunately the offspring of the blood parrot-convict mating tend to be dull in colour, so they are dyed via hypodermic injection with colours, a cruel practice in itself reviewed here for those interested. With the increased fertility and decreased morphological abnormalities the hybrid of the red blood parrot and convict cichlid known in the trade as the “bubblegum parrot” is potentially a greater threat to the cichlid keeping hobby.
Recently a group of cichlasomine derived hybrids have been bred in Asia. These fish are collectively known as ‘Flowerhorns’. Flowerhorns (a.k.a. Kirin cichlids / Luohan / Hua lor han) first surfaced in the hobby around 1996 – 1997 in Penang, Malaysia. These fish are commonly believed to be complex hybrids bred from a number of american cichlid genera, most noteably, Amphilophus, Nandopsis and Vieja species. The assumption that species such as A. citrinellum (midas cichlid), A. labiatum (red devil), Amphilophus festae (red terror), Geophagus brasiliensis (pearl cichlid), V. synspilum or Vieja maculicauda (black belt) are possible parents seems likely judging by morphological characters present in the hybrid fish. Sadly it is hard to find any information on origins or processes involved in creation of these hybrids as the distributors of these hybrids wish to maintain a monopoly on their creation. The distributors want consumers to believe it is some “new” and “exciting” species of fish - not just another hybrid.
Flowerhorn trends change extremely rapidly and fish that were in vogue only months ago are quickly made unfashionable, it seems the people distributing these fish want to continue releasing “new types” thus ensuring their steady stream of cash. There is also very little knowledge on how to care for these fish are many are being treated, albeit unintentionally, extremely poor These new types are highly prized, particularly if they are radically different to the last in vogue flowerhorn, sadly this commercial drive effects the fish and many deformed fish are being produced.
Unbeknownst to many in the cichlid hobby, most commercially available strains of discus are also hybrids and illustrate a major problem with hybrid species. There are many “breeds” of discus, red turquoise, blue turquoise, pigeon bloods etc. Every time someone breeds together two “breeds” of discus - they call it something new. This is problematic as the two original species, S discus and S. aequifasciatus are difficult to find nowadays. The same thing is true of the flowerhorns - a common and popular flowerhorn cichlid is called the fiery phoenix (because it is red). It is unlikely that anyone knows the original cichlids that were used to “create” this hybrid fish.
The genus Aulonocara which includes the spectacular ‘peacock’ cichlids of Lake Malawi also contains some potential hybrids including the marmalade peacock. This fish was allegedly created by originally crossing an OB zebra or marmalade cat, then crossing back with the original peacock to retain the Aulonocara shape. Several ‘pink’ peacocks and a range of hybrid albino peacocks also exist.
So Why Are These Hybrids Bad?
The intentional creation of hybrids has a number of negative aspects:
Hybridization Places Money Above Fish Health
Sadly with the immense pressure on marketers to create “something new” for the insatiable flowerhorn demand by consumers, many have resorted to cosmetic/surgical mutilation of fishes. The removal of the fishes fins or tail is not uncommon, from the minimal amount of scar tissue surrounding the removed appendage it must be assumed that this is undertaken when the fish are still developing (under 1 cm). This process must, by its nature, be devastating on the fishes health, and it is reasonable to assume that many fishes do not survive to adulthood. Good flowerhorns are judged not only by colour or whether markings on the side of the body resemble Chinese characters for luck - but also on the roundness of the body. This has led to many people causing intentional damage to the fishes spine in order to stunt its growth elongate growth. There is also an issue of “quality of life” to be considered - hybrid cichlids, such as the red blood parrot, have deformed jaws and swim bladder problems. Cichlids are renowned for high intelligence and complex behavioral patterns, such that gross anatomical deformities, impinge on the normal behaviours of the fish.
Cichlid Hybridisation Philosophical and Ethical Concerns
Many hobbyists, the authors included, dislike hybrids because their deliberate creation demonstrates a certain amount of arrogance regarding the idea that we can improve upon natural beauty. There are currently over 1500 species of cichlids in the wild - this is a large amount of naturally occurring diversity and it seems unnecessary to go creating hybrids just because it can be done. This natural diversity is fundamental to the attraction most people have for the cichlid keeping hobby, the creation of designer cichlids, or as Ron Coleman calls them “Franken-fish”, detract from the natural diversity present in this assemblage of fishes.
The diversity of cichlid species is such that identification is a fundamentally difficult thing at the best of times. The example features two pictures, the first is the midas cichlid (red devil) A. citrinellus, the second picture shows a flowerhorn known to the flowerhorn keepers as the “jing kang”. It is undoubtedly a hybrid as some jing kang have body patterning similar to A. trimaculatus. The similarity between the two fish is remarkable and it illustrates how flowerhorns could be mistaken for species cichlids. Of some concern to those keeping flowerhorns should also be the higher price tag associated with a “jing kang”. While a midas cichlid juvenile costs $5 - 15 (AUD), the “jing kang” fetches very high prices in excess of $50 (AUD), this illustrates the great effect of the flowerhorn marketing machine.
Dangers of Hybrisation
Perhaps of most concern is the way hybrid cichlids like the flowerhorn could be mistakenly identified as “pure” cichlid species. It is conceiveable that poor quality flowerhorns, could be mistaken for cichlids such as A. trimaculatus or A. citrinellus and bred back with the original species. This has already occurred in cichlids such as V. synspilus, V. maculicauda and V. bimaculatus and this only due to accidental hybridisation by hobbyists, with the deliberate large scale production of hundreds of thousands of hybrids the risk to the hobby is increased many times over. In Australia at present it is very difficult to find good “pure” strains of the Vieja species mentioned above or “pure” discus species such as the brown discus.
Re-Introduction of Cichlids in the Hobby Into Natural Settings
Although the re-introduction of cichlids from the cichlid keeping hobby into the wild is not standard practice at the present time with the threat to many ecosystems globally the cichlid hobby may provide future sources of endangered fish for re-introduction into the wild. It is therefore important that all cichlid keepers are aware that the fish we maintain in our aquaria are potentially endangered in the wild, due to a variety of factors eg: competition from other species such as the Nile Perch and urban development. In this awareness it is important to strive - whereever possible, to maintain cichlids in our aquariums as they exist in the wild.
So why do people keep hybrid fish?
A one word answer applies here: marketing.
The marketers pushing the flowerhorn will tell you:
The value of the Flower Horn is from the “nuchal hump” on its head, the pearl dots on its body, the redness of its fins and body and the roundness of the body on the whole.
There is an suggestion that a good quality flowerhorn will bring luck and prosperity to the owner via feng shui.
It is noteworthy though that many pure species have nuchal humps, many of these “hump-headed” pure speices also have dots on the body and red/bright colouration. In reality, flowerhorns offer very little extra in terms of the aesthetic qualities over the “pure species” fish and seem to offer very many more negative aspects.
Q: So why do the marketers want you to buy a flowerhorn?
A: So it can bring luck and fortune to them - at your monetary loss.
Pure species cichlasomine cichlids are much less expensive and have all the luck & prosperity bringing power of the flowerhorn.
So what can we do?
Don’t buy flowerhorns, red blood parrots or other hybrid cichlids. When you buy these fish are are making the unscrupulous marketers of these fish - richer and the cichlid hobby poorer.
Don’t buy any African cichlids from tanks that read: Assorted cichlids, assorted peacocks, assorted mbuna etc.
When you do buy a cichlid, any cichlid - make sure you know what you are buying before you buy it. Do a bit of reading on the net or in the literature on the requirements of the fish you are thinking of purchasing.
Andy Miller and David Midgley 2002.
How to Avoid Hybrid Cichlids
By Anthony Kendrick - Local aquarium stores provide a service to us all as fish keepers, but when it comes to stocking stores are often influenced by marketing, demand (from the general public), salability (many hybrids are brightly coloured!) and the price of stock.
Hybrid cichlids may arise from a number of hypothetical situations:
Some hybrids may be created on purpose by the breeder to create new, colourful (and most importantly expensive) fish. Three particular species that come to mind are the OB peacock, the marigold peacock and the flower horn.
Alternatively, hybrids sometimes arise by accident when two cichlid species housed in an aquarium hybridise. In this case the uneducated fish keeper would raise the fry and sell them to their local fish shop. In a similar case to the last the aquarist could buy two similar looking species and breed them not knowing that what they have are two completely different species. This has occurred with species like Aequidens pulcher (Blue Acara) and Aequidens rivulatus (Green terror). Additionally, species can be labeled incorrectly by wholesaler, aquarium store or breeder adding to the potential for this scenario. It is noteworthy that cross breeds can occur unknowingly in the aquariums most experienced of breeder - so caution is advised.
So how can you avoid purchasing a hybrid cichlid? The first and foremost way of avoiding hybrids is by buying your fish from reputable breeders. Ace forums has both a classifieds forum and a breeder’s register, the majority of those on the register are reputable breeders and if you’re not certain about a particular breeder then ask questions to others around the forum.
If you are buying from a local aquarium store there are certain rules to follow. The first rule would be to make sure you are provided with a Latin/scientific name when you discover a fish you like (i.e. Neolamprologus brichardi). Certain fish such as peacocks, Tanganyikan cichlids and some zebras should also come with a location name (i.e. Neolambrologus brichardi “Kiku”) “Kiku” is the location the fish came from. The second rule would be to go out and research that fish. sydneycichlid.com, cichlid-forum.com and FishBase are all good places to start, or you could use Google to search for a species. If you discover that the fish you saw in the shop looks nothing like the pictures then ‘don’t purchase that fish’. If you are certain it is the same fish then it should be safe to purchase. Just remember to record both the Latin/scientific name and the location if possible. This will avoid confusion when selling or breeding the species. Another way of identifying a cichlid is by taking a photo then posting it up on aceforums.com for some more experienced hobbyists to identify.
Once you have purchased a species be sure not to place similar species in the one tank to avoid them hybridising, and/or avoid putting females of one species in with a male or males of a different species, because in desperation to reproduce the males will likely resort to the next best thing.
The following organisations are dedicated to the cichlid hobby and prove to have various benefits if you were to join as a member. These benefits consist of access to information, meetings, auctions, newsletters, library etc:
Cichlid Breeding Terms
Inbreeding occurs when the offspring of a species breeds back to its parents or with other offspring from the same parents. Or for that matter cousins breed with cousins, brothers with aunts etc. It occurs when you have a limited number of individuals in a population. An ecological population being a group of individuals from the same species.
Line breeding is when a certain trait, for example tail colour, is focused on and altered through selective breeding. Good examples of this can be seen in modern dog breeds. All dogs are the same species, Canis familiaris, however a large range of ‘linebred’ types exist eg: Maltese, German shepherds, Doberman etc.
A cichlid example of this practice, is Aulonocara jacobfreibergi “Eureka Red”. A Dutch breeder by the name of Ruijsbroek used a naturally occurring morph of jacobfreibergi from Otter Point, spawned fry from several colonies and only kept the fish which exhibited the most red on the body and fins. He then used only these fish for his next colonies. Through many successive generations he produced the Eureka Red.
References & Recommended reading:
Who Needs Another Hybrid? | Dr. Ronald M. Coleman, Dr. Michael K. Oliver, Dr. George J. Reclos, Francesco Zezza, Patrizia Spinelli, and Frank Panis.
Hybrids | Dr. Ronald. M. Coleman.
Le Musée des horreurs | Philippe Burnel.
Thanks to Steven Croft for permission to use his photo of A. citrinellus on the SCP. Thanks also to Kee Ursadon for the photo of his ‘Jing Kang’. Thanks to Jessica Drake for her drawing of the Frankenfish. All images used in this document remain the property of the respective copyright owners.