Meet the Micros
Eric Hanneman brought goldfish home in
those white, waxy cardboard boxes with the
metal handle as a child and started his first
aquarium in middle school in the Chicago
area. He got into the African cichlid frenzy
and started breeding Tanganyikans before
moving to the West Coast for graduate
studies in neurobiology. He has traveled
to Mexico, Central America, and Africa
to see cichlids in the wild. For five years
he owned and operated a tropical fish
specialty store. He now works as the
aquarist at the North Carolina Museum of
Natural Sciences and is most interested in
the cichlids of Guatemala.
Like most aquarists, my interests change over time. I was once fascinated by Tropheus spp. from Lake Tanganyika, but eventually I
began to look for something new. At an
American Cichlid Association convention,
cichlid expert Rusty Wessel had a tank
full of little brown fish in the sales room.
My friend Joe Middleton urged me to buy
a dozen of them, which turned out to be
Vieja microphthalma, known as “micros.”
Rusty had collected the micros in
Honduras, near the ruins of the Maya city
Copán. They were originally described
from the Río Motagua, one of the largest
rivers in Central America, in a collection
of fishes made by Frederick Godman. The
Río Motagua has become severely polluted,
being downstream from Guatemala City.
The Río Copán is a tributary where Vieja
microphthalma and other fish that used to
be in the Río Motagua can still be found.
After bringing them home and acclimating
them to his aquarium, Rusty had trouble
getting the micros to breed in his tanks, but
when the weather warmed up, he placed
them into a small pond in his yard, and
there the micros finally spawned, producing
the fry that he handed to me in a bag.
After growing up for two years, my micros
went into a 200-gallon tank where, at a size
of around 6 inches, they started spawning.
At this size micros are, in my opinion, one
of the most beautiful cichlid species. Their
overall color is a brilliant electric blue. They
also have red markings on the scales and
the unpaired fins, as well as a gorgeous
golden mask on the face. Being a large
riverine cichlid used to fast-flowing water,
it is shaped like a torpedo and capable of
magnificent bursts of speed in the tank.
photographs by the author
Working with this species has never
been a stroll in the park. The fry that
Rusty’s cichlids produced took two to
three years to reach spawning size. Since
there appears to be some seasonality to
their breeding behavior, I had to wait a
while for them to spawn.
Despite my best efforts at conditioning
the breeders, they would only lay 60 to
75 eggs. Worse, after the eggs were laid,
the parents (either one or both) would
eat them. As a countermeasure, I would
sometimes pull out the rock or flowerpot
with the eggs on it and incubate them with
methylene blue (an antifungal medication)
and an airstone (to keep the eggs in motion
and well oxygenated), but all the eggs
would be infertile.
When I finally did get some to hatch, I
only got around 25 wigglers and only half
of them would get up to an inch in size.
I distributed one of the early successful
batches to members of the Lane County
Aquarium Society in Eugene, Oregon,
where I was living at the time.
I thought I could speed up the spawning
process by feeding the fry heavily all the
time to get them to grow faster, but this
proved to be unwise, as the overweight
adults from that generation produced even
smaller spawns with fewer viable eggs.
A few years later, I was down to two
micros—a male and a female—but I just
could not get them interested in each
other. On a random trip to a local tropical
fish shop, I found a large micro being sold
as a Tilapia sp. It was probably one of the
fish I had given away at a club meeting
While trying to explain to them what it
really was, I was asked, “Do you want it or
not?” I purchased the fish and that turned
out to be the trick, as a third fish to chase
around soon had the pair bond forming,
and I was back in business.
One year I decided to build a tank just for
them. In fact, they have inspired my overall