Wild Nosferatu pantostictus with fry; Photographed by Rusty Wessel in the Panuco drainage of Mexico
One of the great aspects of the aquarium hobby is the sheer variety of animals we can choose to keep. There are literally thousands of species and varieties that are available to the hobbyist. And with the amount of information and resources available, there are fewer and fewer species that people are unable to have success with keeping.
Arguably, the most popular family of fish (and likely the family with the most passionate fanbase) are the cichlids. And for good reason. Like the hobby as a whole, there is a wide enough range of cichlids to meet almost any keeper’s desires. It’s estimated that there are more than 2,000 cichlid species ranging from the tiny shell dwelling Neolamprologus to very large peacock bass (Cichla spp.). You can find cichlids that are fairly peaceful or that are ruthless killers, cichlids that thrive in large groups or that are complete loners, cichlids that are graceful and beautiful or cichlids that are downright ugly.
There are, of course, cichlids that are eternally popular and coveted. Angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare) will likely never become unpopular, nor will the ubiquitous Oscar (Astronotus ocellatus). There are also cichlids that are not as readily available but are coveted by many keepers, such as the true parrot cichlid (Hoplarchus Psittacus). But those aren’t the fish I want to discuss today. I want to look at the underrated species that, for whatever reason, just don’t get the love they deserve. I also don’t want to just give my opinion, so I asked a few other notable people for their opinions as well.
I started off in-house, asking Dave Parks, our import buyer who tracks down odd and unusual species from suppliers around the world. Almost without hesitation, he named Guianacara spp. as his choice. Guianacara (originating, unsurprisingly, from Guyana), are in a lot of ways like a link between acaras and Gymnogeophagus. They are a great choice for many keepers because they are moderately sized (generally reaching around 6”), do well in groups, and are surprisingly peaceful.
Being fairly closely related to Gymnogeophagus, they have a fairly unique body shape reminiscent of G. balzanii, exhibit similar Geophagus type behaviors, but are much better in community setups. Keep a group of them in an appropriately sized aquarium with a sandy substrate they can dig around in. As with other species from Guyana, they will thrive in relatively soft, slightly acidic water and appreciate a little bit of extra flow.
I didn’t want to confine this article to just Segrest Farms employees so I sent out emails to a few contacts. My first response came from Mike Tuccinardi, Senior Editor at CORAL and AMAZONAS magazines. I have to admit that Mike stole my thunder by naming the same fish I would have put down for my own selection: the festivum (Mesonauta festivus, and closely related species).
Festivum Cichlid, photographed by Mike Tuccinardi
In my opinion, the festivum is an interesting addition to this list because it wasn’t always an underrated cichlid. In the earlier days of the hobby (around the 50’s and 60’s), the festivum was one of the go-to cichlid choices. While this was well before my time, when I first got a group I could immediately see the appeal of them, even if they’re not kept all that often anymore.
Festivums are relatively small and quite peaceful. In the wild they can be found living with other medium sized Amazon basin fish such as angels and Chalceus spp. They are great in a group and are generally happiest when kept in a well planted aquarium. Their somewhat subtle but beautiful color, elongated fins, and graceful movements lead Mike to say that they “rank up there with angelfish or discus as some of the most elegant fish in the hobby.”
Matt Pedersen, another Senior Editor at CORAL and AMAZONAS as well as owner of MiniWaters.fish, turned to Africa when thinking of underrated fish. He initially responded (I’m sure only half jokingly), “I’m a Victorian nut, so I’m going to say EVERY LAST VICTORIAN CICHLID ON THE PLANET is underappreciated.” That’s not necessarily an unfair statement given the much higher prevelance of Malawi and Tangyanikan cichlids, but we all want specifics, so he also offered Haplochromis (Xystichromis) sp. “Flameback” in order to narrow it down.
Like other Victorians, the care for H. sp. “Flameback” is fairly straightforward and typical African cichlid. They need hard, alkaline water and can be somewhat aggressive. Unfortunately, there are few if any surviving in the wild, so a part of their uncommonness comes from relative scarcity. Nonetheless, breeding them is generally no more difficult than other African cichlids. Matt closed out his response by saying “Victorians as a whole don’t get the recognition and support they truly deserve, but Hap. sp. “Flameback” in particular deserves a renaissance.”
We wouldn’t be able to talk cichlids without getting an opinion from Mo Devlin, or Aquamojo as many in the hobby know him as. Mo gave us two different answers, the first of which was surprising and a little bit counterintuitive.
The first fish that Mo answered with was the common convict. It is easy to wonder how anybody can consider such a ubiquitous fish that can be found in virtually any fish store to be underrated. In a previous blog post, I wrote about how sometimes popularity can be problematic in the hobby, and the convict is a prime example.
One Convict Cichlid species, Amatitlania siquia; Photographed by Mo Devlin
Originally classified as Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, convicts in recent years have been split up and reclassified into several different Amititlania species, each of which is a little bit different. Convicts are incredibly hardy and, as Mo put it, “will breed with a wet mop.” In Bermuda, aquarium clubs will give young aquarists convicts because of these qualities, allowing them to be excited by their success and learn a little bit about fish breeding in the process. And while it’s easy to get captivated by the subtle color and personality differences, convicts are also quintessentially cichlids, displaying many of the same characteristics as other more “exciting” species. Mo wrote, “the [Amititlania sequia] I have now are spread across three tanks. And I spend a lot of time just watching them just being cichlids.” And isn’t that what this hobby is all about?
The second underrated species Mo suggested is Hypsophrys nematopus (formerly Neetroplus nematopus). Neets (as they used to be called, though that nickname is now outdated) are a small to medium sized cichlid, staying less than 5” in length. They also are not most colorful of all cichlids, which is likely one reason that they are not as popular as they could be. However, the main draw for many cichlid keepers is being able to watch their cichlids breed and protect their fry, and neets are particularly voracious in this regard. If you’re wanting to keep them, though, try to keep them in a species-only tank, as despite their small size they are absolutely nasty towards other fish.
The Neet; Hypsophrys nematopus (formerly Neetroplus nematopus); Photographed by Mo Devlin
A similar situation is the reason for the lack of popularity for the fish suggested by well known cichlid specialist Rusty Wessel who suggested Nosferatu pantostictus (formerly Herichthys pantostictus). N. pantostictus is a fairly obscure cichlid that, even on the rare occasions it is available, is largely ignored by all but a handful of specialist keepers. Like neets, they are not particularly flashy fish that make up for their relatively small size with an overabundance of attitude.
It’s only natural that due to the sheer number of cichlid species that exist several will end up getting overlooked by hobbyists. But among these neglected cichlids you can find some absolute gems that can perfectly fit into a niche you are looking for, whether that is a fish that is elegant and graceful, shockingly colored, or extraordinarily aggressive.