For many decades, mouthbrooding in tropical fish was a limited and unique method of spawning. Many thought only a few fish spawned in this manner. However, that was before the East African invasion of the 1960s and ‘70s, when the multitude of Malawian mouthbrooders came into the hobby. Now, when one mentions “cichlid,” many people think of mouthbrooders. Before the 1960s, when hobbyists mentioned “mouthbrooder,” the little Egyptian mouthbrooder (Pseudocrenilabrus multicolor) or its close, brightly colored cousin, the southern Egyptian mouthbrooder (P. multicolor victoriae) were the fish they were talking about. No other fishes with this behavior were commonly known to hobbyists.
The southern Egyptian mouthbrooders are diminutive cichlids that come to us from the upper reaches of the Nile River and several vegetation-choked backwaters of its tributary streams just north of Lake Victoria. They spend their entire lives there among the stems of water lilies and other aquatic plants in shallow, slow-flowing or stagnant waters; they are not found in open waters. Keep this in mind when setting up an aquarium for them. They make excellent, colorful additions to the lower regions of a planted community tank.
At a maximum size of about 2.5 inches, this fish certainly qualifies as a dwarf cichlid. However, members of the genus Pseudocrenilabrus are unique among dwarf cichlids, in that they are all maternal mouthbrooders. With a few exceptions, most other known dwarf cichlids are cave spawners. The colors of the male southern Egyptian mouthbrooders are very bright and have made this fish popular for many decades. Reminding the observer of a brightly colored bird, the male is lemon yellow, with bright blue lips and blue dots covering the rear half of his body and into his fins. His anal fin is often bright red, even from a young age when the other colors are still developing.
The 2-inch female is the claim to fame for the southern Egyptian mouthbrooder. This plain silvery fish with no other finery takes the eggs into her mouth upon completion of the spawning act and broods them in an area of specially modified throat tissue, known as a buccal pouch, until they hatch and for a while after. This brooding period can last two weeks or even longer, during which time she does not eat. This is probably an instinctual response to her brooding, so she won’t eat her own fry. Her body slowly wastes away, while the growing fry in her mouth make her head look larger in proportion to her diminishing body. During the last stages of their development, the fry have grown large enough that the skin of the buccal pouch is stretched so thin and taut that you can make out the individual fry. You can see 100 small eyes looking back at you as the day of release draws close.
Unlike the better-known female mouthbrooding cichlids of Lake Malawi, which release their fry in the shallows and then move on, this tiny mother will continue to protect her fry for several days after release. She provides them a shelter at night and whenever danger threatens. After a couple of days, it is almost comical to see the nearly 100 juveniles try to dash back to their mother’s mouth when you walk up to the tank. I’ve seen so many juveniles that outgrew their mother’s mouth still trying so hard to get in that there were tails sticking out of her mouth and heads protruding from her gills – with even more trying to get in. This is why, for the mother’s health, it’s best to remove her as soon as she releases the fry and give her a couple days to recover before moving her back to the main tank.
Caring for these unique dwarf cichlids is straightforward. They are undemanding about water parameters, and will live and breed under most aquarium conditions, as long as the water is clean (low dissolved organics, low nitrates, and no ammonia or nitrites). In other words, do those water changes regularly. They don’t seem to require a specific temperature, so aim for somewhere in the mid- to upper-70 degrees Fahrenheit, without worrying about being too exact. They are not aggressive with other fishes, but males may fight amongst themselves. You can maintain a group of one or two males and several females in a planted community tank, where they will happily go about their business without bothering other fish or digging up the plants.
There is no need to set up a special spawning tank for them. If they are well-fed and happy in the community tank, they will spawn regularly among the other fish. For spawning, the males only require an area of open gravel or sand about 3 inches in diameter. Here, they will excavate a shallow, round pit and court the females. The male will put on his brightest colors and swim up to the females, doing a little dance and trying to entice them back to his pit. He flicks his fins and arches his back while shivering and shaking. If the dance impresses the female and she follows him back to his pit, he begins circling the pit, shaking and dragging his bright red anal fin on the bottom.
A receptive female will then enter the dance in the pit. She will begin to follow in the circling behavior, nipping at the male’s side near his bright red anal fin. After a few minutes, she begins laying a few eggs, picking them up in her mouth and biting at the red anal fin of the male. He releases his milt and fertilizes the eggs in her mouth. This process is repeated until the female lays about 80 to 100 eggs. The female then moves off to quietly begin her brooding period as described above. The male will head off, looking for other females. No pair bond is formed.
If possible, gently remove the female to her own 5- to 10-gallon tank to brood her young in peace. A couple of females can share a brooding tank as long as each has her own cave to hide in when needed.
Feeding is also fairly straightforward. Both the adults and the fry appear to be omnivores and will eat just about anything you offer. Remember that their mouths are small, so provide appropriately sized foods. After release, the young will grow quickly on a mixed diet of newly hatched brine shrimp and finely crushed flake foods. At about 6 months of age, they will have reached adult size, and within a year, they will be spawning on their own. You should move females that have just released their fry to a separate container for a few days to recuperate. Feed them things like worms and protein-rich food, so they can quickly regain their weight — as soon as you return them to the main tank, the males will likely begin courting again.
It’s surprising that you don’t see the southern Egyptian mouthbrooder for sale very often, considering their bright colors, peaceful demeanor and ease of spawning. If you come across this diminutive beauty, don’t hesitate to pick up a small group of them to add to a planted community tank. With proper care, you’ll be able to say that you’ve completed another successful Adventure in Fish Breeding.