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Haplochromis burtoni
: New From The Past

By Daniela Rizzo

Every year many new cichlid species arrive on the market, with cichlid enthusiasts willing to pay high prices to obtain a few specimens for their collections or breeding programmes. Sometimes the fabulous, astonishing, new Callochromis species is not so different from the ones we already have in our tanks. Perhaps the male has a white stripe on the caudal fin that the other species lack, but otherwise it is the same behaviour, same breeding method, same food, and (of course) the same problems!
As a standard-issue cichlid fan I have anxiously sought out new, odd or rare fishes, but I’ve never forgotten those species that allowed me enter the fascinating world of fishkeeping many years ago. A little while ago I was browsing the tanks of an importer when I came across an old friend: Haplochromis burtoni, also referred to as Astatotilapia burtoni. I had actually been spending the last couple of months looking for some new Archocentrus, and had a nice aquarium all ready for them. But I quickly snapped up six young Haplochromis burtoni instead: I doubt anyone has travelled from America to Africa as fast as I did that day!

In The Wild
This little fish is endemic to East Africa where it lives in the shallow swamps and streams around the edges of Lake Tanganyika. It is has been introduced into Lake Kivu, a satellite lake of Lake Tanganyika and is also very common in the Kagera River and its associated lakes. It is generally considered a secure, abundant species.

Like many other haplochromine cichlids, Haplochromis burtoni lives in big schools where the dominant breeding males defend territories while females and non-breeding males swim all around them. Only dominant males are brightly coloured, and they spend their time displaying to one other and chasing away other males that intrude into their territories. Females and non-breeding males have the same drab colouration more suitable for camouflage.

The male defends his territory for two purposes: feeding and breeding. This species is omnivorous and feeds mainly on benthic crustaceans and other invertebrates collected from the substrate, hence the importance of having a wide territory. Females will enter these territories to feed, and non-breeding males may try to do so as well. Such males are chased away rudely by the territory-holding male, which is why you can’t keep two adults males in one aquarium (unless it is very large, at least 200 cm/6 feet long).

Dominant males dig a pit at the centre of their territory and display their best colour, spreading their fins and quivering to attract ripe females. Chemical signals haven’t been identified for this species, and all social interactions appear to depend on visual displays.

At Home
With this information it’s not difficult to keep properly Haplochromis burtoni. First you need to give it lots of space because males are not only very aggressive towards other males but also any females in the tank with them. A minimum tank length of 130 cm/4 feet is recommended, as this will allow a group of one male and up to four females. As mentioned above, the females are schooling fish, and the bigger the tank the more females we can keep. So a bigger tank, around 200 cm/6 feet, would be even better.
Males reach a maximum length of 15 cm/6 inches, though 12 cm/5 inches is typical; females are slightly smaller. Provide plenty of rocks so that non-breeding males and mouthbrooding females will have secure places to hide. Plants are not damaged unless they disturb the territory owner, but this species can easily dig a hole down to the bottom glass! In my cichlid tanks I find robust plants like Anubias, Vallisneria gigantea and Cryptocoryne spp. work well with this species.
When I brought home my new fishes I put them into a tank 150x50x50 cm (about 100 US gallons) with a lot of pebbles on the sand bottom. Because the aquarium was originally decorated for the more open water Archocentrus it needed some more rocks to complete the tank before my adventure could start again!

Settling In
Although my new Haplochromis burtoni were only about 3 cm/1.5 inches long, one of them already had a lot of eyespots (ocelli) on the anal fin and immediately asserted his dominance by digging a small pit under a rock.

I gave them some live mosquito larvae to eat, which they liked, and then left them to settle in. The following morning they seemed to be completely at ease, they swam, they ate, and they scouted the new territory. The apparently dominant male remained near his pit but didn’t chase other fishes. In a week he had made it plain that he didn’t like Vallisneria along his territory by uprooting them all, so I took them away but otherwise he caused no harm to the other plants elsewhere in the tank.
All my fishes ate Artemia, krill, Cyclops, commercial cichlid mix, live mosquito larvae, flake, and pellet foods. They grew up very quickly. They ate a lot and I had to do water changes every ten days. Pay attention to not overfeed this cichlid because obesity is a real risk and can cause health problems in the long term. I had no problems with water chemistry because my tap water is perfect for this species at pH 8.1 and with a total hardness of about 20° dH.

After three months I had established my group contained one male and five females, they measured 6 centimetres/2.5 inches in length, and were by now fully coloured. The male began to display every time he met a female, but none of the females were sexually mature, so to while away the time he seemed to dig a nest under every rock he found.

By the time he was 12 cm long the females had reached a length of 10 cm. He became much more aggressive towards his tankmates, and swam vigorously in front of a ripe female trying to lure her in his territory. The female would follow him and they immediately began to assume the T position, quivering and spreading fins, and opening up their the gill covers.
Within a few minutes the female had laid about 15 eggs and collected them in her mouth. The male fluttered his anal fin (with the egg-like eyespots) and when the female tried to “pick” those dummy eggs he released his sperm, ensuring fertilization of the eggs in her mouth.
After mating the female would hide away and remain hidden for three weeks. The male repeated his performance with all the other females; and only one chose not to mate with him. Some days later the male patrolled the tank seemingly ready to oppress mouthbrooding females who remained in their hiding places! The only one who tried to swim about in the open was the non-brooding female, but soon she was so harassed that she dug a hole in a remote corner and hid there most of time. Oddly, the male didn’t lose his magnificent blue bright pattern despite the lack of potential mates.
After three weeks the females began to release their fry, though remaining ready to shelter them in their mouth at the slightest sign of risk. The males generally don’t chase the fry, but remain very nasty towards the guarding females.

The period immediately after the fry are released is critical when breeding this species; if we don’t pay attention to the adults a terrible drama can begin! It’s better not to separate mouthbrooding females from one another because they will then lose their place in social hierarchy. Instead move the male, and leave the females together in the one tank.
I removed my dominant male and then soon afterwards discovered why one of my females didn’t spawn: ‘she’ was a male! Having played transvestite to survive, with his stronger rival removed he now showed his real nature. He immediately began to harass the females and to dig his own pits in the sand.
There is no bond between specimens outside of the breeding period, but for whatever reasons my females didn’t like the new male and they began to breed again only when I the first male was returned to the tank.

The fry grew up quickly eating the same foods of their parents, and measured about 2 centimetres/0.75 inches by the time I moved them into their own 80-litre aquarium. I tried to keep all my adult fishes together but soon the second male was wounded so I had to keep him apart from the others.
Many years ago I successfully reared three males and nine female Haplochromis burtoni together in a big tank about 280 cm/9 feet long, decorated with rocks from the bottom to the surface. This species can easily hybridise with other Haplochromis/Astatotilapia species so its best to keep a single species per tank.

The only problem with this cichlid is the aggressiveness of the males, but otherwise it has interesting behaviour, is easy to keep, feed, and breed: so why not give it a try?

  • Haplochromis burtoni male captured on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Zambia (© Chuck Rambo)
  • Sexing dominant, sexually active males like the fish at right are much more brightly coloured that females and quiescent males (© Angie Higham, Maidenhead Aquatics Harlestone Heath)
  • Male Haplochromis burtoni showing the typical colouration of dominant individuals (© Angie Higham, Maidenhead Aquatics Harlestone Heath)
  • Outside of breeding condition males and females look very similar (© Angie Higham, Maidenhead Aquatics Harlestone Heath)
  • Males tend to have more eggspots on the anal fin, but this isn’t a completely reliable way to sex juvenile fish (© Angie Higham, Maidenhead Aquatics Harlestone Heath)
  • As with most other cichlids, healthy Haplochromis burtoni are curious about their environment and quick to settle into a well maintained aquarium (© Angie Higham, Maidenhead Aquatics Harlestone Heath)

Malawi Setup 9/19/11
Adding A. Burtoni to a Malawi Cichlid Tank

Hi Guys/gals, I have a 165L tank setup which currently houses 3 Electric Yellows, 3 Cobalt, 3 Albino Peacock and 4 Xmas Fulu. I was looking at putting 4 A. Burtoni in this same tank. Although primarily Tangs I have read that the Burtoni also inhabit Lake Malawi.
< No it is found in the river estuaries of Lake Tanganyika. A. callipterus id found in Lake Malawi.>
Would they be ok in this Malawi tank?
< The cobalts are going to pick on everyone. If the other fish can make it then these fish can too.>
The current residents are all juvenile as would be the Burtoni as I am growing them up together as advised in other posts on this site.
< Getting them small and letting them establish a pecking order is a good idea.-Chuck>
Regards, Paul

WWM on African Cichlids

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