Just what every hobbyist needs — a fish that can talk back! Well, the croaking gourami (Trichopsis vittata) may not be able to literally talk back to you, but if you keep a group of them, you’ll hear the occasional croak or chirp, especially when the males are displaying for the females, or squaring off against one another in mock battles.
Coming to the hobby from an area spanning thousands of square miles of southeast Asia, from Vietnam to North Western India and down through the many Islands of Indonesia to Java, Trichopsis vittata spans perhaps a wider geographic area than any other species of gourami. They are found in streams, roadside ditches, rice paddies, irrigation canals and just about every other small body of water throughout this range. This does create some problems in the hobby, as the fish you have may or may not resemble ones you see in photos of croakers. This species varies widely in color, and many people contend that these are separate, but closely related, species. Fortunately, care and breeding requirements of most locality variants are similar.
All populations are similar in size, reaching just less than three inches, plus the tail. Nearly all populations are a basic brown to tan, with a series of usually three or four horizontal stripes. The stripes can be brown, blue or sometimes dark red. One stripe usually runs from the tip of the snout through the eye and back to the tail, sometimes ending in a large blotch. Some of the far eastern populations have a dark brown spot behind the gill cover; many of the other populations in the south and west do not. The eyes are red or gold, with a bright blue iris. The anal and caudal fins of males often have long extensions, often in black, and sometimes the dorsal will reach back to the middle of the tail. These fins are usually covered in metallic blue and red, sometimes in stunning patterns.
Females are a bit more subdued, but still have some of the coloration of the males. They are generally a bit smaller, too. The easiest way to sex the fish, especially when they’re younger, is to “candle” them. Put them in a clear, flat-walled container, and shine a bright light from behind. You’ll see the body sac of internal organs, a dark triangular shape behind which is the swim bladder, and in females, a yellowish to cream-colored sac below the swim bladder, which are the ovaries. In males, this space is empty.
If you keep them in a group, you’ll often see males displaying with outstretched fins, similar to the display of male bettas (Betta splendens). However, they do not fight. Instead, they judge one another’s strength by waving blows of their bodies at one another. Presumably, the pressure waves in the water created by these blows are detected by the other male’s lateral line. A “fight” can be decided with no actual harm done. While doing this “battle,” they often make a chirping or croaking sound, which is the source of their common name. This sound can be loud enough to be heard clearly across the room. With well-matched males, you might hear croaking repeatedly over the course of an hour or more. One visitor to my fishroom was so startled by this sound that he jumped and nearly knocked into another row of aquariums.
Feeding is not a problem, as these fish will take flake and pellet foods. In the wild, they are carnivores, eating crustaceans, terrestrial insects and their larvae, and worms. They will also enjoy meaty frozen foods, such as frozen bloodworms and frozen brine shrimp. Of course (especially to condition them for spawning), some live foods, such as white worms, black worms and young earthworms, are invaluable.
While getting these guys to croak may be easy, getting them to spawn might not be so easy. For starters, try to make sure that you have a group from the same source. Fish from different areas (which may eventually turn out to be different species) may not recognize the initialization of mating by the other fish. A specially set-up aquarium might also help, though they’ve repeatedly spawned in my community aquariums.
To set up a special spawning aquarium, use something like a 15 or a 20 long. Fill it with a lot of floating aquatic plants, such as water sprite (Ceratopteris sp.), and maybe a flower pot turned on its side. The males build a smalll bubblenest, often hiding it under leaves or even in the flowerpot. Because of their wide range, exact water parameters aren’t that important, as long as extremes are avoided. Fill the aquarium with soft (less than 150 ppm total hardness), slightly acid (just under pH 7) water. Most literature recommends making the aquarium a bit warmer, up into the mid- 80s, but my fish often spawned successfully at temperatures in the upper -70s Fahrenheit. Experiment a bit; this might have to do with their wide geographic distribution, and certain populations may require warmer water while others do not.
Spawning occurs under the nest, with the female responding to the male’s dance and rolling over on her back. The typical anabantoid “embrace” follows, with several eggs being released in a quick burst. These eggs are in a little group known as a packet, and there may be four to six eggs in a packet. The male quickly grabs the egg packet and spits it into the nest, often adding a few more bubbles for good measure. This act may be repeated a couple of dozen times, until upwards of 150 eggs may be laid. Some large females may lay more than 200.
After a day and a half or so, the eggs hatch. At higher temperatures, they may hatch a bit more quickly, in as little as 24 hours. The fry will hang head-up in the nest for three to four days as they finish development and consume their yolk sac. The male will carefully tend the nest this entire time, driving off intruders and gently spitting back any fry that wander off. At the end of the development period, usually around day three or four post-hatch, the fry begin to make short “hoplike” jumps. These are their first attempts at swimming. As they become better at it, they swim a bit further each time. Soon, the male loses interest – it’s difficult to keep track of 150 or so tiny babies all darting every which way.
At this time, it is best to remove either the adults, or the nest and fry. As they were spawning in one of my community aquariums, I decided to use a large bowl to scoop out the nest, plant and fry all in one gentle scoop. This is usually easier than trying to remove the adults, as you can sometimes tear up the nest while chasing them with a net.
Move the nest to a plastic sweater box set up with water from the parents’ aquarium, and gently pour it in. Add a few ramshorn snails to clean up uneaten fish food, and begin feeding the fry twice daily with newly hatched brine shrimp, which they eagerly devour. Regular water changes are important and should be done every other day with water from the adults’ aquarium. After a week, add a slowly bubbling mature sponge filter. At about three weeks, begin to add some finely crushed flake at feeding time. When the fry are about a month to 6 weeks old, they are large enough that they can be moved to a 10-gallon aquarium for grow-out. As they grow, they’ll have to be moved again, depending on how many fry there are.
At about 3 months, you should start seeing the young males beginning their first mock battles and maybe even hear them trying their voice. If you reach this point, congratulations! You’ve had another successful adventure in fish breeding!