When people ask me how many aquariums I have, my immediate answer is, “I don’t have any—I threw them all away.” I follow up by saying, “The rivers are my new aquariums.” Swimming with freshwater fish in their natural habitats is fascinating—even addicting. As soon as I get back from an expedition and return to my routine, I begin to miss the tranquil time in nature and get the urge to get
back on the road to discover new locations or return to my favorites. There are rivers so incredibly beautiful underwater
that I could repeatedly go to the same spot and not get bored. The instant you get into a crystal-clear river and start
snorkeling around, you can actually see how cichlids have evolved to have their own daily routine in the ecosystem.
You see pike cichlids taking care of their fry, taking them for a swim around their territories, and protecting them
nonstop: males are always up front, scouting the perimeter, in very bright colors, and females are always close to the ground
near the fry. An Apistogramma displays to another male that has come too close to his female. Juvenile severums clamp
their mouths together, trying to move up the hierarchy. The Geophagus and Satanoperca are always schooling, gulping up
sand and sifting it in their mouths to separate out the organic matter that comprises their natural diet. The Cichla peacock
bass are always still in midwater, waiting for the opportunity to dart at lightning speed at any fish that is careless enough
to venture close.
The best place to see territorial behaviors is in morichal habitats. Here, the river banks are full of millions of moriche
palm roots around ¼ to 3⁄ 8 inch in diameter. These roots form thousands of crevices and tunnels. Cichlids love to go in and
out of these crevices and seem to know them by heart. They run for shelter in one direction into their tangled root world
and come back out through another side. They take a long curious look at you, then hide again.
Although I can try to recreate all of this in an aquarium, I always miss the relaxed state that I get into after looking at
these fish for hours in a weightless, floating environment. Staring at an aquarium at home isn’t the same: no mosquitoes,
gnats, horseflies, or, of course, getting soaking wet!
Cichlids are present in most Venezuelan rivers in a variety of biotopes, from very hard brackish waters with a pH of 8. 4
for Caquetaia kraussii, to very soft acidic waters with a pH of 5. 6 for Apistogramma guttata. Temperature-wise, the extremes
would be 24°C ( 75°F) at the low end for Aequidens pulcher and 31°C ( 88°F) at the high end for Apistogramma hoignei. Some
species are found in a variety of habitats, while others are found only in very specific habitats. Most cichlids are slow-moving fish that don’t voluntarily migrate—they make a territory and live within it. They prefer to pair off, lay their eggs,
and take care of their fry in the same spot for a lifetime. Sometimes when I return to a river after a year or so, I recognize
a pair of cichlids in the same spot taking care of a new batch of fry.
A very good cichlid breeder in Venezuela once told me, “I love cichlids the most; they are the intelligent fish.” This is only
one of the many aspects that make cichlids so fascinating.