Apistogramma atahualpa

by Don Kinyon

For a while, this was the "hot" fish that everyone was after, and with good reason: it’s one of the most beautiful things to come out of South America lately. It was known only by “Species Sunset” for some time, but has been described and named Atahualpa, after the sixteenth century Inca ruler. Uwe Romer’s diagnosis is published in The Buntbarsche Bulletin (journal of the American Cichlid Association) number 182 from October 1997.

This cichlid is found in the Basin of the Rio Ucuyali, in eastern Peru. I found no recordings of the water parameters, but I assume it is a black water species, for reasons you will read later.

This fish is a thick-lipped Apistogramma from the A. cacatoides group. It displays black markings at the caudal peduncle, the first few spines of the dorsal fin along with a dotted line at its base, an eye stripe slanting down and back, and an indefinite lateral stripe that can be light or dark depending on mood. The female will also display jet black ventral fins. When in good condition, the males will show some wonderful color. His body has a base color of tan to brown, with a bright yellow cheek and abdomen. His ventral and anal fins are blue, and his upper dorsal has a pale blue stripe, topped by a yellow one. The first few spines on the dorsal fin are elongated in the adult male. The female is beautiful in her own way, especially during spawning and egg/fry care. She displays a bright yellow body with contrasting jet black markings. During this time, the lateral stripe disappears and she develops a black spot on her side.

I had some of these fish in the past, but never had any luck getting them to spawn. It seemed they would go through all the motions, but not produce any eggs. I assumed the pair to be too old and gave up, apparently too quickly. I gave the fish to another hobbyist who had many broods from them. I was later able to obtain a number of younger fish and grew them up. I fed them a lot of live foods, along with flake and freeze dried, which grew them out quickly.

The biggest and most colorful male and the best female were put into their own 20-gallon tank of very soft, acidic water. I use mostly rain water with Amazon Basin fish, and these fish seemed uncomfortable in anything that was above a pH of six. The water in the tank was a pH of 5.5, with very little hardness. The temperature was raised from 76° gradually to 82° and the fish got twice weekly thirty percent water changes, with pure rain water and live food, daily. The pair exhibited spawning behavior on several occasions, but didn’t spawn for the first few weeks.

As is many times the case, because the fish didn’t lay eggs in the first month or so, my attention was drawn to other fish room matters. The water changes became less frequent, but they still received live food daily. The lack of so much new water is probably what triggered the spawning. As I was doing water changes several weeks later, I noticed the female hovering over one of the small upturned flower pots in the corner of the tank. On closer inspection, she was guarding a clutch of pinkish eggs that had been laid on the inside wall of the crockery and wasn’t going to let the much larger male out of the far corner of the tank.

I have gotten into the habit of checking water parameters as soon as possible after any spawnings, to perhaps duplicate the conditions again, or advise other hobbyists. The temperature was warm at 80°, and the total hardness was very low at about 40 ppm, but the thing that caught my attention was the pH: 3.8! I know that tanks can “crash” when the water has little or no buffering, and many fish would be belly-up in these conditions, but it evidently had no ill effects on the Sunsets.

I did a normal water changes on the tank and observed the fish whenever possible. I ended up removing the male after a few days, for his own good. Poor guy was afraid to come out of his corner to eat. The female stayed over the crock for another six days, at which time she led about forty free-swimming youngsters out into the tank.

From the first day, the fry were able to eat micro worms and newly-hatched brine shrimp, and they always seemed ready to eat. Most of the Apistogramma young that I’ve seen will stay with the mother fish and be led to the food, but as soon as these little ones saw the eye-dropper push out a cloud of shrimp or micro worms, mom no longer mattered; it was a race to the meal. With appetites like that, it’s no wonder the youngsters grew quickly. By one month’s age they were nearly a half inch in length.

I was careful to check the water more regularly, especially the pH, and did my best to keep it at 5.0 or above, but even if it dipped below that point, neither mother nor children were bothered. Water changes continued at once a week, but they contained a small amount of tap water to keep some buffers in the tank water.

Once the fry were large enough, they started getting flake foods and freeze-dried along with their live foods, much the same as the adults ate. At a little over a month of age, there was a die-off of about ten fish, which I believe I caused myself by being a bit overzealous with their feeding. They fry always seemed so ravenous that I assumed they weren’t getting enough to eat, but even these ever-hungry young cichlids had limits. I lowered the temperature to 75° degrees and added a couple young Corydoras catfish, and the problem went away. The water temperature was a little warm for the Corys to be totally comfortable, but they didn’t seem put out too much.

With thirty-some growing cichlids in a 20-gallon tank, the water changes had to be doubled to twice weekly. I still added some tap water with each change to keep the pH from crashing, and it stayed somewhat stable at around 5.5.

At this writing, the young sunsets are two months old, and most are over 1 1/4“ long. They haven’t lost their large appetites and are still growing like weeds. Water changes have moved up to every two or three days just to keep up, and I’m emptying out a larger tank to move them into.

Although the newness has worn out for this Apistogramma, they should remain a popular cichlid and staple fish for the South American dwarf cichlid hobbyists.

This article first appeared in PVAS’s Delta Tale, Vol 33, # 1