Lake Malawi Cichlid Profiles – The Peacocks

The Lake Malawi Peacocks are the most spectacularly adorned Cichlids of all — a characteristic that has kept them in constant demand amongst aquarium hobbyists for more than thirty years. The dazzling, iridescent colours of the males by far outstrip the plain, almost dowdy looks of the females and juveniles of this species and rival even that of tropical marine fishes.

As those dowdy juveniles grow, we can watch the dramatic transformation of the tiny males, from mere silver or grey-brown slivers into the brilliant blues, iridescent turquoises, tawny gold, bright yellows, blood reds and vibrant oranges of the adult males. The difference between the Peacocks and other Cichlids is that once mature, their spectacular colours are always on display — and with attitudes to match! Instead of moody colour changes, or the occasional spawning and dominance displays of other Cichlids, the peacocks strut their stuff all day long, flaring their fins and sweeping their tails, as if on a fashion runway, trying to perpetually impress.

In addition, their popularity is further heightened by the fact that Peacocks are relatively peaceful when living with other appropriately selected fish, a characteristic that makes them the perfect candidates for a community Cichlid aquarium. Not only are Peacocks undemanding, they also breed readily. No wonder, then that both beginners and advanced aquarists find them equally appealing!

The Lake Malawi Peacocks consist only of fishes from the genus Aulonocara, all of whom share one single characteristic: a remarkably enlarged lateralis, or lateral line. This lateralis, or lateral line , is a line of perforated scales along the flanks of a fish which is connected to the pressure-sensitive nervous system of this species. Within the lateralis there are specialized cells, called neuromasts,  which enable these fish to detect vibrations and electrical impulses in the surrounding water, thereby allowing them to detect both potential prey and predators through their skins! And this pressure sensitivity is even more enlarged by the large facial pores and the extension of the lateral line onto the jaw.

Look a little closer at the face of a Peacock! The squamation across the bones of the face is nearly devoid of scales, making this extension and enlargement of the cephalic lateralis clearly visible as pits and grooves, exactly as described by the Cichlid guru Al Konings.  Seen out of water, in slanted light, the pores on the suborbital bones of the head are so dramatically enlarged, they resemble the holes of a flute. It was this unique characteristic that led to Regan choosing the name for this genus in 1921 : Aulonocara. Derived from the Greek aulos, which means ‘flute’ or  ‘pipe’ and kara, which means ‘head’.

Living in the deeper and darker waters of Lake Malawi, the Peacocks rely on their enhanced lateralis ‘sensors’ to hunt for food. Aulonocara are almost always found along the sandy bottom of the lake, because they are benthic insectivores. They hunt sand-dwelling invertebrates with the aid of those enlarged pressure sensitive tubes in the flesh of their jaws — by hovering motionless above the sand by just a few millimetres, waiting to detect the micro-movements of tiny invertebrates in the sand. Then they suddenly pounce and bite into the sand. This mouthful of sand is then strained for food morsels, retaining the treats and shooting the sand out their gills.

Fascinating! But how do we prepare an appropriate aquarium, fit for these spectacular Cichlids?

When we consider their natural habitat, sand is imperative as a substrate, as it is ‘hardwired’ into these fish. Never ever use gravel in a Peacock tank. The sharp edges will irritate their gills, since they frequently ‘chew’ on, and sift through the substrate after each feeding. What is more, sand is important to their breeding process. Prior to spawning, males like to dig shallow depressions in the sand — something they cannot do in gravel.

Their unique hunting technique has never been documented in the aquarium, obviously due to the absolute lack of insect larvae and other small crustaceans in an aquarium substrate. Nevertheless, the behaviour is ingrained and these fish often sift through the sand after each feeding, in all probability looking for any small particles of food that were missed.

In an aquarium, Peacocks readily adapt to and accept almost any commercially prepared food. The do require animal protein in their diet, and in their particular case, brine shrimp treats from time to time are suitable. But it is also wise to provide protein and mineral rich Spirulina, especially as it keeps the blues in their  colours looking vibrant. Similarly, a fish food with krill will help maximize reds and oranges. All reputable cichlid foods contain an adequate amount of yellow carotene pigments, so this need not be a concern. Both frozen and live foods can occasionally be fed, but these should be considered treats only, as they are not essential. Just feed quality foods — this would be the wrong place to save money!  Also be aware that mature adults need more than just flake food to keep them in optimal breeding condition. You can find more information of feeding cichlids in the article “Requirements for keeping Cichlids” under our Cichlids drop down menu.

It is best to feed Peacocks only twice a  day, and never more than they can consume within in two minutes. This is longer than the time advised for Mbuna, a species whose aggression necessitates feeding several times a day. In contrast Peacocks have a mild temperament and are generally very undemanding. As a consequence, their twice a day feeding regimen is less frequent, but it should always be consistent.

A rock structure is equally important to the well-being of these Cichlids. The vast majority of the Aulonocara species are rock-dwelling cichlids. More specifically, in theLake they inhabit the intermediate zone, where the deep, open sand meets the rocks. Because of their relatively small size and their conspicuous colours, they literally ‘cling’ to the rocky niches of this biotope, as their only protection on account. Considering that this is ingrained evolutionary behaviour, they need the same kind of environment in an aquarium. Plenty of caves, crevices, hides and retreats should be provided and they are usually quickly and readily claimed — while the sandy areas in between or near rocks have proven to be the most favoured places for breeding.

As for the how, let us consider their social behaviour. In their natural habitat, Peacock males are solitary and territorial. Males usually choose a territory around half a meter in diameter, always centred around a cave, crevice or rocky overhang, as this not only functions as rear cover, but also an escape when necessary. Females, on the other hand live in small groups, and occasionally as solitary singles, but they usually linger near the territories of the males, and will use the same retreats for cover if they must.  

Keeping this in mind, arrange your aquascape in such a way that your rock-work becomes like several attractive, natural looking ‘apartment blocks’  with several small ‘boulder’ strewn sand ‘gardens’ at the foot. By cleverly constructing your rocks into strategic curves and outcroppings, you can create many ‘separate’ territories that will satisfy your Cichlids’ evolutionary and social needs and at the same time promote peaceful living in the constrained space of an aquarium. You can find many pointers on how to create such an aquascape on our sister site here.  

Plants are not part of their natural habitat, and Peacocks are adjusted to dimmer light, which is why I would not recommend them. However, if you cannot imagine making an aquarium beautiful without using some greenery, this is the one Cichlid species with which hardy, live aquarium plants are a viable option. Unlike other Lake Malawi Cichlids, Peacocks do not eat plants — but they nonetheless tend to dig and uproot them. Thus any plants used should be potted and wedged in between rocks or otherwise fastened or secured. The Peacocks will readily adjust to the higher light levels required for the growth of aquatic plants.

As we know, the water of Lake Malawi is quite alkaline. The average surface temperature ranges from 23 – 28˚C, depending upon the time of year and the specific location, as all values tend to fluctuate from place to place. The difference is that the lake is a large body of water located in the tropics, which means its fauna is never subjected to rapid changes in temperature or chemistry.

It is this specific characteristic we need to simulate in our aquaria. All effort must go into as consistent and stable an environment as possible: The water temperature should be kept stable and without fluctuations via a reliable heater.  The water chemistry should be maintained at a consistent level, with a pH level of 7.8 — 8.0, and GH and KH levels no lower than 10. It is important to understand that when GH and KH levels drop to lower than 10, it will result in an unstable pH — no matter how much effort or money you put into raising the pH.

Water can be hardened with the use of chemicals, but the simplest and least expensive method is to use the appropriate rocks. Limestone, for example, is made of Calcium bicarbonate, a natural buffer found in many biological systems. Many aquarists advocate the use of crushed coral as a buffer. The truth is that unless the water flows directly through or over the crushed coral, it has almost no effect!

As with all Cichlids, it is recommended to keep several Peacock females to every single male. The minimum ratio should be one male to three females.

Breeding Peacocks in the aquarium is not difficult. In fact, it is super exciting to watch their vigorous and prolonged courting rituals. In Lake Malawi, males typically display at the entrance of a cave or grotto, where they have dug a shallow spot in the sand. They display with their fins erect and frequently darken their narrow lateral bars.  To gain female attention, courting males will execute many darting and flashing movements. Once the male has succeeded in attracting a willing female, he will entice her to this shallow nest. There they will make a pass across the nest several times, usually in a characteristic T-shaped position, before the female finally drops a few eggs. As soon as the female reaches to pick them up, the male fertilizes the eggs. The two will repeat this process dozens of times, and only stop when the female eventually loses interest.

Once spawning is complete, the female incubates the eggs in her buccal cavity for a period of 21 to 28 days. She will release the fry as soon as they are developed enough to swim and forage on their own. In the wild, a mother will care for her young for the first week, sometimes even longer, but this is only rarely observed in aquaria. Depending upon the size of the female, the spawns of most adult Aulonocara species number between 12 and 50 eggs and newly released fry measure roughly 10 mm. Since spawning occurs more readily and the embryos develop faster, thereby reducing the ‘holding’ time, when these fish are kept in warmer water, most experienced aquarists will keep their aquarium temperatures in the range 26 – 28˚C.  

Female Peacocks do not eat during the incubation period. As a consequence, they can become weak and easily stressed, all the more so when they are chased or nipped at repeatedly. In aquaria, where space is limited, males will often continue to pursue their females for several days after spawning. Therefore it is essential that females have sufficient shelter from pursuant males, otherwise they will abort the incubation. Alternatively, she should be removed to a separate breeding tank. Brooding females can be removed from the aquarium for the incubation period without causing her harm. This should, however, not be done too fast after spawning, as the stress may lead her to aborting the clutch. If a female has been removed, she should be given several days of ‘maternity leave’ post-release, to recover her strength before she is returned to the aquarium. When properly cared for, females will breed about every eight weeks, which means she will spawn again four weeks after releasing her first batch of fry.  Regular water changes and a diet high in protein will keep both her and her male in top condition.

Peacocks can be housed with a variety of other Lake Malawi Cichlids. Many of the gentle, medium-sized haplochromines make excellent tankmates fot this species. Various members of the genera Copadichromis, Cyrtocara, Placidochromis, Protomelas, Otopharynx, Nyassachromis, and Sciaenochromis are just some of the popular fish which can be successfully housed with Peacocks.

Peacocks should never be housed with Mbuna, or any of the other boisterous cichlids such as Labeotropheus, Petrotilapia, Metriaclima, or Pseudotropheus.

While Mbuna and Peacocks both live in the rocky biotopes ofLake Malawi, they are not natural conjoiners. Due to their vastly different diets, they almost never have contact. Mbuna graze on the strongly lit algae growing on the rocks, in the upper 5 m of the water column. Peacocks typically reside at a depth of 6 to 40 m, far too deep for the algae to grow in abundance, and therefore feeding on live sand organisms.  

Mbuna also make poor tank mates for Peacocks because they are aggressive to the point of obnoxiousness, and hyperactive and would keep the Peacocks in a constant state of subordination or stress. Some aquarists try to deny this, however, the truth is that Peacocks kept with Mbuna do not grow as fast, are less colourful, and do not live nearly as long as they shgould. It has been proven time and again that whenever these hapless peacock victims are removed from such an unsuitable environment, there usually is a dramatic turnaround in their behaviour and well-being within a very short period. My question is: Why submit these glorious fish to such cruel circumstances in the first place? Is the intention of fish-keeping not meant to be a happy situation for both fish and fish-keeper?

It is clear that the exquisite Peacocks of Lake Malawi — with their wide diversity, their prolific aptitude, their striking colours and their relative peacefulness — are the perfect candidates for a rewarding cichlid aquarium that will bring you many hours of joy. I can only highly recommend them!

But I must also, as a responsible fish breeder and keeper, fulfil my duty to these fish and the hobby of keeping fish by addressing the one problem possible with Peacocks: Hybridisation!

Aulonocara species are known for their tendency to cross-hybridize in captivity.  No Peacock hybrids have ever been found in the wild! So, let me say it loud and clear: For the sake of the species, hybridisation is not desirable and should not be allowed.

We, the hobbyists, may be the last bastion of the species, because of the continued environmental threats against the African Rift Lakes. Poverty in Africa is at an all-time high and nothing remains sacred in the eyes of people who need to eat just to survive from day to day. Thousands of people like this live around and extract the means for a meagre existence from the African Rift Lakes. Many of the Rift Lake species are already extinct and many more are now on the highly endangered list. Whether we want it, or not, we, the hobbyists, are now the treasure keepers — the only ones capable of preserving pure gene lines, as well as the geographical variants. If there is ever to be a come-back from the brink, it may well have to come from our hobby tanks!

If you are truly a responsible aquarist you would always consider the impact the trade has on native populations and the integrity of live fish stock. You, as part of the Cichlid-keeping hobby have responsibilities in ecological terms to the fish you have chosen to dedicate your attention, because, although not currently standard practice, pure species may, in the future, be required for re-introduction to habitats currently under threat from the aforementioned poverty, as well as racing urban development.

The livestock in the aquarium trade is increasingly supplied by breeders of captive bred or captive raised fish, which is good, as it helps protect wild populations from being over- harvested. Some breeders can be trusted; others are more concerned with quantity and saleability than the integrity and quality of the fish they are producing for the trade, and are unscrupulous in their marketing of so-called ‘new breeds of Cichlids’.

The question is: Where do you buy your fish? Reputable breeders take pride in the fish they produce, and are careful to breed good stock, with pure lines, to preserve the integrity of the species they are helping to conserve. There are many breeders that selectively breed purebred strains that have brighter coloration and better health because the species lines are kept pure. These are the fish you want to look for to keep in your aquarium.

If you are a responsible aquarist, you will willingly refrain from purchasing hybrids, or allowing a bastardisation in your tank that would never have taken place except for yourkeeping fish in captivity! It should disturb you that two species that live side by side in the wild will not hybridise, but will do so once placed in an aquarium. Does it not seem logical that there is some natural barrier which prevents hybridisation in their native environment?

By purchasing hybrids, you create a demand for this practice to continue! By giving away or selling hybrids, you contribute to polluting pure strains. Therefore, if you happen to accidentally breed hybrids in your tank, you should destroy them immediately and humanely, and not pass them on to other hobbyists! Alternatively, turn any hybrid fry into ‘feeders’. While it may not seem right to do the latter, keep in mind that these fish prey on each other all the time in the wild, and do so even in our own tanks when the opportunity or necessity arises.

There is a vast difference between selective breeding or line breeding  and hybridisation! In selective breeding or line breeding,  the best species out of pure strains are interbred to deliver a more intense characteristic trait — whatever it may be, but most often for colour — without removing the true,  inherent traits of the species. With other words, even though these enhanced traits may not occur in the wild, the strain itself remains pure. In hybridisation, we create artificial environments in which we simply ‘let’ accidents happen — or even worse, deliberately crossbreed species for the sake of novelty and/or a quick buck!

Aulonacara 'rubin red' - line bred from Aulonocara sp. 'Stuartgranti Chipoka' and thus, despite its fancy marketing name, still an A. Stuartgranti 'Chipoka'.

The term ‘hybrid’ applies when a male from one species mates with a female from another species to produce fry, or vice versa. Sometimes the term ‘cross-breed’ is also used to denote hybrids. The two terms are interchangeable and mean pretty much the same thing: Man-made, NOT natural! Hybridisation can lead to many problems for the fish itself, including several severe bodily defects and, of course, sterility, if not immediately, certainly so down the line. Believe me, interesting though they may seem, there is really nothing natural, or beautiful about hybrids. Nevertheless, there are those who enjoy these fish and will keep them regardless.

A so-called Aulonocara 'OB', but a hybrid, nonetheless. There are no 'OB' Aulonocaro species in nature.

 

Should you, however, belong to the group of aquarists who prefer to stick to nature, you can avoid hybridisation by refraining from keeping more than one breeding group in the same aquarium. By selecting your species carefully, it not only is possible to keep different species together, but you can also do so relatively safely. At the end of this article, you will find a list of these species, to help you make the correct choices.

Obviously, cross-hybridization is not a problem if you plan to keep only Peacock males. In such set-up you forego the excitement of breeding — unless you keep separate dedicated breeding tanks — but can enjoy a cornucopia of brilliant colour, as the presence of females is not a requirement for Peacock males to display their full colouring. Nevertheless, also be aware that some males may not display their full potential if they are housed with others of similar colouring. This is especially true with the yellow-bodied Peacocks Even though there may be no apparent aggression between the two fish, there always is a hierarchy!

 

Selecting Aulonocara species for safe cichlid community tanks

The list below documents the four different groups into which the genus Aulonocara can be subdivided. A combination of the species on each list is generally considered ‘safe’, provided each male fish is matched with two or three corresponding females.  In other words, a single pairing (meaning 1 male+2 females of the same species) from each of the four groups can be housed together.

1. Chitande Type Group:

  A. kandeense
  A. maylandi
  A. saulosi
  A. sp. “Chitande type Kande”
  A. sp. “Chitande type Masinje”
  A. sp. “Chitande type Mozambique”
  A. sp. “Chitande type Nkhomo”
  A. sp. “Chitande type North”
  A. sp. “Yellow Collar”

2. Jacobfreibergi Group

A. jacobfreibergi
  A. jacobfreibergi “Boadzulu Is.”
  A. jacobfreibergi “Cape Maclear”
  A. jacobfreibergi “Hongi Island”
  A. jacobfreibergi “Mamela”
  A. jacobfreibergi “Mbowe Island”
  A. jacobfreibergi “Otter Point”
  A. jacobfreibergi “Reginae”
  A. lwanda
  A. sp. “Jalo”
  A. sp. “Walteri”

3. Sand-Dwelling Group

A. aquilonium
  A. auditor
  A. brevinidus
  A. cf. “macrochir”
  A. gertrudae
  A. guentheri
  A. rostratum
  A. sp. “nyassae mumbo”
  A. stonemani

4. Stuartgranti Group

  A. baenschi
  A. hansbaenschi
  A. hueseri
  A. korneliae
  A. sp. “Mbenji”
  A. sp. “Stuartgranti Maleri”
  A. steveni
  A. stuartgranti

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