By Vin Kutty
From a hobbyist’s perspective, pike cichlids of the reticulata group may be divided into two subgroups. The frog-headed ‘Reticulata’ or Batrachops species that occupy slow moving or still water bodies and the bottom-hopping rheophilic species like Crenicichla jegui. I call the latter ‘Jegui’ group species. This segregation is not taxonomically valid since the differences between these two unofficial groups have not been verified. However, each group is sufficiently different in their husbandry requirements that separating them here for aquaristic purposes feels justified. For the purposes of this article, the frog-headed Batrachops will be considered a subgroup of the official reticulata group.
The business end of a Crenicichla jegui. V. Kutty Photo 2001.
The members of the Batrachops subgroup don’t enjoy the popularity of spangled pikes of the saxatilis group, or the giant, colorful pikes of the lugubris group or the dwarf pikes of the regani group. The reason for their paucity in the hobby can be attributed to their coloration during their sexually quiescent period, which can flatteringly be described as gray or brown. Of course, their less-than-perfect aquarium manners and large adult size do not help the matter. These plump pikes occupied the genus Batrachops (which means frog-like) after Jakob Heckel described them in 1840 and since then, ichthyologists have moved these fish to the genus Crenicichla and back a few times. Visibly, these fish are easily distinguished from other Crenicichla species on the basis of their physical appearance – the plump body, round head and dorsally positioned eyes (read bug-eyed) give them away. This nomenclatural Ping-Pong has, for now, subsided as a result of independent publications by Kullander and Ploeg, both published in 1986, arguing that the species belong in Crenicichla based on dentition. For a more comprehensive review of the taxonomic history of this fish, I direct you to Warzel (1994), an excellent review of the four Batrachops species covered here.
Reticulata group (17 species)
cametana, Steindachner 1911
There are four described species of ‘Batrachops’. C. reticulata (Heckel, 1840) and C. semifasciata (Heckel, 1840) were the first to be described, followed by C. cyanonotus Cope, 1870 and very recently, C. stocki Ploeg, 1991. All of these species have been imported into North America but the most common species encountered is C. semifasciata. Of course, common here is a relative term, as I have only seen this species being offered for sale a couple of times in the last ten to fifteen years. C. stocki was the subject of export during the early 1990s when collectors and exporters in Brazil were trying to decipher the tastes of hobbyists, as the sudden spike in interest in East Brazilian clear water Loricariids and the Orange Pike (C. sp. Xingu 1) failed to transfer to other species from the area. As a result of this trade experiment, I was the lucky recipient of three reticulata group species during 1993 namely, C. stocki, C. cametana and C. cyclostoma. I have not seen any of these species offered for sale since. C. reticulata is one of the most widely distributed cichlid species in Amazonia but still, their occurrence in the hobby is extremely rare at best. C. cyanonotus and the undescribed Peruvian and Bolivian species are the rarest of all.
C. semifasciata is the southernmost representative of the group, distributed in the Rio Paraguay drainage of Brazil, Paraguay and Northern Argentina. Most recently, this species has been exported from the Argentine province of Formosa, the next planned stop of my exploration of the southern cone of the continent. Here, it is found along with Bujurquina vittata, Crenicichla lepidota, Laetacara dorsiger, Apistogramma trifasciata and some undescribed Apistogramma currently called A. sp. Paraguay. This species looks more like a frog than the other three, with its short snout and wide head. When viewed from above, adults look like microphones, with circular head and gradually tapering body.
Crenicichla semifasciata female in breeding colors. V. Kutty Photo 1995.
The sexes are difficult to distinguish when young, but after they reach 4 to 5 inches TL, males develop spots on the posterior part of the soft dorsal fin, just above the caudal fin. Females develop a bright red band on the dorsal fin when sexually mature with a fainter red band running along the longitudinal line. The red coloration, the onset of which is often mood or hierarchy dependent, is independent of the presence of males and appears seasonally, possibly signaling the seasonal dependence of their reproduction in the wild. This pattern of red coloration on the females and dorsal fin spotting on the males is common to all four Batrachops species and may be reliably used to distinguish the sexes.
Females of the lowland quiet water species show seasonal red breeding coloration as shown here.
Of the four species, C. semifasciata is the one most frequently reproduced in aquaria. Delores Schehr of Michigan spawned this species a few years ago – she succeeded with a very old, one-eyed male paired with a sprite young female, possibly indicating that aggression management is key. I struggled for years with a pair, constantly separating them due to aggression but never saw eggs or fry. When the male finally died, the female paired up with a Central American Theraps regani, whose union did not result in any progeny. At the time of his death, the male was almost 9 inches, a fair maximum size for the group.
Of the four, C. semifasciata is the most tolerant of being chilled, with temperatures as low as 60°F taken in stride, while the other three begin showing discomfort at about 70°F. Any treated tap water is suitable for growing or breeding them. All Batrachops are very hardy aquarium residents who tolerate a fair amount of nitrogen cycle neglect and eat anything tossed into the tank. Wild caught adults are, of course, more discriminating and will require live or frozen foods for a long time before they begin accepting the prepared matter offered to their domesticated tankmates.
Distribution of Crenicichla reticulata group species
As for aquarium manners, none of them are model citizens. They are highly territorial, more so than pikes of the saxatilis or lugubris group. They are particularly fond of driftwood with large holes or caves, which they constantly occupy and will defend, sometimes even against humans. Wild C. reticulata were caught by the dozens, when my friend, Jeff Cardwell and I were throwing cast nests against a river bank filled with “Pleco holes” in Rio Uatuma, a whitewater, left bank tributary of the Amazon, a few hundred miles down stream of Manaus. This was a piranha-infested river and these pikes were occupying holes dug in the soft ground previously used by large Loricariid catfish. The vibration of the lead weights hitting the mud scared them into our nets. Tucked away from each other’s sight, we caught many full-grown adults residing within inches of each other. This behavior was previously unrecorded. The water there was soft with a pH of 6.4. Back home, the same fish tucked away in caves can be seen flaring their gill covers at passersby, be they piscine, canine or human. I tried to breed these fish for four years, even taking them with me when I moved my residence from Florida to California, all to no avail. Aggression finally diminished their numbers to two females, whom I had to keep separated. Accepting reality, I finally gave them away.
Undescribed species from the Guapore Basin. Jeff and I caught just one of these fish in Rio San Martin, Beni, Bolivia.
C. reticulata is one of the most widely distributed cichlid species in the Amazon basin. Unlike the other two widely distributed pikes C. regani and C. johanna, C. reticulata does not show any geographic variation in color or rather, pattern, as some critics would say “what color?” C. stocki, a Rio Tocantins endemic, most closely resembles C. reticulata, but C. reticulata can be distinguished by the placement of its nostril, which almost touches the lip fold. In C. stocki, the nostril is further away from the lip. Both these species also have faint forward slanting double bands, where as in C. semifasciata and C. cyanonotus, these bands are fused together. My experience with keeping C. stocki mirrored that of C. reticulata. Unlike pikes of the saxatilis or lugubris groups,
Very little is known about C. cyanonotus. From the scant records of observations of C. cyanonotus, it appears this species is more variable than others in this subgroup. C. cyanonotus also display a marked difference in the sizes of the sexes, with the females remaining much smaller than the males. This species has been reported to occur only along the Rio Amazonas. Warzel (1994) reports an aquarium spawning of this species and typical to all pikes, they are cave spawners.
Batrachops species do not have humeral ocelli (shoulder spot), but there is a Batrachops species reported from the Upper Rio Tapajos with a shoulder spot. This has not been confirmed but the upper reaches of the southern clear water tributaries of the Amazon have not been well explored and probably hold many unknown pikes.
The Rheophilic Jegui Group
The second subgroup of the reticulata group is rheophilic, specialized species. As stated above, for merely illustrating the different husbandry requirements of these pikes from those of the Batrachops group, I have separated them and will collectively address them as ‘jegui-group’ here.
This group contains the most commonly available species of reticulata group, Crenicichla sp. “Belly Crawler”, also sold as Green Hopper Pike or C. sp. Belly Slider or C. sedentaria. The common name of this species gives away the fact that this is a bottom bound fish with celestially pointed eyes. It is frequently collected in the upper Rio Meta drainage, around the town of Villavicencio, Colombia and exported to all takers, along with juveniles of C. sp. Venezuela (sp. Orinoco), an undescribed lugubris group species and occasionally also Crenicichla sveni, a spangled pike. C. sp. Belly Crawler has been exported and incorrectly sold as C. sedentaria because of its lethargic, sedentary lifestyle, but C. sedentaria is a similar but distinct pike from rapids of Rio Chinipo in Central Peru, separated from C. sp. Belly Crawler in distribution by over a thousand miles. A similar but never-exported species is found in Rio Caura in Venezuela. It is similar in shape and size to C. sp. Belly Crawler, but the barring on the flanks and the suborbital stripe are more prominent and contrasting. The Field Museum in Chicago has conducted a Rapid Assessment Program of Rio Caura and ichthyofauna seems fascinating.
Aquarium husbandry of the Colombian species is rather easy, as it accepts most prepared foods, tolerates any water it is offered and ignores tankmates that make an inconvenient mouthful. Females of this species is easily distinguished from the males by their prominent dorsal fin spot, often this characteristic can be used to select desired numbers of each sex. Once at ease in their new homes, you will find them particularly aggressive with each other, but this can be managed if you provide adequate hiding places such as hollow driftwood, rocks or PVC tubes. This species has been spawned in aquaria but as with most pikes, finding a compatible pair and providing them with a comfortable environment is the challenge. When housing these fish, I find it particularly useful to employ Giant Hatchetfish (Triportheus sp.) as dithers. These Characins are large enough to avoid getting eaten by these medium sized pikes and are capable of outswimming an unwanted attention.
Remember that this and the rest of the pikes discussed in the remainder of this article hail from highly oxygenated, moving waters and require similarly high oxygen levels in captivity. They don’t seem to miss the water current of their birthplace as they don’t seem to particularly enjoy being in front of a powerhead or a filter return spout. Also, their adaptation to rapids and fast-flowing streams seems to have evolved away fully functional swim bladders. Some, like C. cametana and C. cyclostoma are more adept at swimming while C. jegui is a poor swimmer but is capable of making sprints and dashes in pursuit if prey; C. sp. aff. jegui is a notoriously poor swimmer that relies almost entirely on camouflage and is almost incapable of chasing after its prey. I find it fascinating that Crenicichla has members who have sacrificed their ability to move in favor of camouflage while others like C. missioneira of Rio Uruguay, are such rapid sprinters that their chasing behavior in aquaria is almost too fast for the human eye to observe.
Crenicichla jegui. V. Kutty Photo 2001.
Also in the northwest corner of the continent, in the rapids of upper Rio Orinoco occur C. geayi and a closely related species C. cf. geayi. These fish are rarely exported but if you ever seen them listed on an specialty dealer’s price list, please be sure to snatch them up, as they are medium sized and fairly mild in their temperament compared to the rest of species in the jegui-group. As mentioned above, C. sedentaria has not been exported commercially to North America and the situation is unlikely to change since the farther a collecting locality of a fish is from Iquitos (Peru), the less likely one is to see it in the hobby.
Moving further east, there are no known rheophilic members of the reticulata group until you reach Rio Tocantins and its major tributary Rio Araguaia, where you are rewarded with dorsally compressed C. cametana, C. jegui, C. sp. aff. jegui and the laterally compressed C. cyclostoma. The first two species have not been exported regularly in many years while C. jegui and C. sp. aff jegui are seen or heard of occasionally. Shipments of these fish from Brazil to Japan or Germany may be intercepted at “trans-shippers” if you are lucky and know the right people – but be prepared to pay a mortgage-like sum to acquire a small colony.
Crenicichla stocki male
Unlike most Crenicichla, the rheophilic species listed here are not particularly hardy. They easily succumb to ‘Ich’ – once Ich takes hold, the condition of the fish deteriorates rapidly. So please remember to keep their water warm, highly oxygenated, well filtered and certainly don’t forget to do those weekly water changes…and keep Ich-medicine handy. If these requirements can be met, they seem able to live a long and healthy life. I have noticed a small, white parasite, possibly a Diplostomum species, moving about disturbingly in the iris of all four species from Rio Tocantins. This does not seem to harm the fish and the parasite often lives for years. I have not attempted to kill the parasite through medications as the death of the parasite in the iris, an area without an exit orifice, could mean blindness (or worse) to the host fish. It is likely that these cichlids are intermediate hosts for the parasite.
An undescribed species similar to C. jegui
There has been some confusion regarding the C. jegui and C. sp. aff jegui. The following tips may be helpful in distinguishing the two sibling species. C. jegui, when viewed from above have a very elongated, pointed snout whereas C. sp. aff jegui have a shorter, wider, massive, bulldog-type head and body. C. jegui has a gray background color while the ‘Bulldog Pike’ has a creamy-brown base color. C. jegui have spots and hardly any blotches or bands on the head while the ‘Bulldog Pikes’ have some spots but a lot more blotches on the face and body. Neither species has a developed swim bladder but the Bulldog pike is even clumsier. My C. jegui could sprint to snatch up goldfish easily but the undescribed Bulldog Pike is certainly no sprinter, it can only snatch up goldfish within a few inches of its face. C. jegui do not dig. C. sp. aff jegui dig a lot. C. jegui makes an appearance once a year or so somewhere. C. sp. aff. jegui makes an appearance once or twice a decade and costs a lot more.
Females of the rheophilic species show seasonal red flag on the soft dorsal.
They are both highly specialized piscivores and as such, will reject non-living foods for a while after importation but will eventually learn to accept frozen fare. While they both occur together in Rio Tocantins, C. jegui is a lot more common. They are both acutely uncomfortable in small living quarters. And finally, C. jegui is creepy to small children but C. sp. aff. jegui is significantly creepier and truly scares them if viewed inches from each other! These fish have not been reproduced in captivity and in the case of C. sp. aff. jegui, a merely compatible pair would be a sight to behold. When in breeding coloration, females of all the ‘jegui-group’ exhibit bright red band on the upper edge of the dorsal fin, particularly in the soft rays.
Dorsally compressed and endowed with a fully functional swim bladder C. cametana, (also described as C. astroblepa by Ploeg in 1986) was regularly imported in the early 1990s but I have not seen them in the hobby since. This species and females of Crenicichla sp. Xingu III are the only known black Neotropical cichlids. This species, while also a highly specialized piscivore, is less extreme in its demands for live foods in aquaria, eventually accepting prepared and pelletized foods, which is snatches from near the surface and just as quickly retreats to its lair. This ease in husbandry ying is balanced by the yang of the species’ aggression. Simply put, provide numerous caves and hiding places for each member of the species in the largest tank possible and hope for the best. In an under-furnished tank, the dominant specimen will make the lives of the others very brief. Besides the value of the lives of the subdominant fish, consider all the effort that went into capture, transport, export of the sacrificial fish and spent the extra money to add numerous caves.
C. cyclostoma, is the smallest of the jegui-group, reaching only 5 inches in length. It is also the least piscivorous species, as its small mouth suggests a life feeding on insect larvae similar to the dwarf C. compressiceps. Like the others in its group, this species spends most of its life near and under rocks in fast flowing water bodies. No successful breeding reports have surfaced and considering its extremely scanty availability, it may be a while before anyone is likely to attempt spawning them. My experience with keeping this fish suggested that they are relatively hardy, adapt to most tap waters with ease, accept most prepared foods and are not as aggressive as its larger cousins discussed above.
The species I’ve covered here in my fifth installment of Crenicichla articles are neither colorful nor easily obtained, but are fascinating in their behavior and highly specialized feeding habits. Any advanced hobbyist with a large aquarium will thoroughly enjoy keeping them.
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KULLANDER, S.O. & H. NIJSSEN. 1989. The cichlids of Surinam. E.J. Brill, Leiden and other cities.
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