by Amanda Parker, uploaded February 07, 2010
Farlowella vittata eggs
Farlowella vittata fry
I went to an auction in Boston, USA in July 2009 with a friend. I only took one bag of fish and it fetched a nice price. I swore that I wasn't going to spend a penny (aside from my share of the parking, since I came up the big winner with my one bag). But, a large bag of fish came up that caught my eye: 6 Farlowella species, fully grown. It was apparent that there were males and females in the bag. I could see the narrow, shortened rostrum on at least two females. What species they were could be sorted out later. These fish needed to come home with me. My winning bid was $12, or $2 a fish! Another friend put them in the auction. he was able to give me their history. It's not every day you find out where your fish have been. Even so, I was anxious to get them home and into a tank.
I wanted to show off my new acquisitions when I got home, but I was soon cut down to size. My mother immediately chastised me for bringing snakes into her house. Anybody who hasn't had the privilege of seeing fully grown Farlowella could easily be forgiven for this line of thinking. Another thought that may cross one's mind is they look like miniature, skinny Sturgeon, especially in profile and it is no coincidence that relatives of these fish are know as sturgeon catfish in other languages. The largest male of the group was approximately 7” in total length. The females were smaller at a maximum 5” total length. Farlowella are named after William Gilson Farlow, a professor of Cryptoganic Botany at Harvard University during the late 19th to early 20th century. Farlowella species are commonly referred to as Twig catfish since they mimic the twigs of a tree. Naming this species for Dr. Farlow made sense. These species are found throughout the Amazon Basin, but there is a concentration of them in the Orinoco Basin in Venezuela. The male sports a long rostrum (although a few species have short rostrums) that is covered in bristles upon reaching maturity (there are always exceptions to the rule). The female typically has a shorter narrow rostrum. She also appears to be shorter than the male and sports a round belly, as she matures. The round belly looks out of place on a fish this skinny. The dorsal and anal fins are set far back on the body. The anal fin is quite close to the ventral fin. The pectoral fins are rather small. This, along with the extended rostrum, does create a bit of a snake-like look.
I put them into my 29 gallon tank, along with a breeding group of Corydoras trilineatus. I knew this was risky. I'm usually the first person to scream about quarantine, but I didn't have a 10 gallon tank available. I didn't think a 10 gallon tank was large enough. I was going to leave them in the 29 gallon tank for 2 weeks until suitable housing could be arranged. The 29 gallon tank was well planted with one large piece of driftwood, a massive piece of Java Fern, as well as other plants. On the downside, this tank has issues with an overabundance of pond snails and blackworms in the substrate. The temperature was 75 degrees Fahrenheit, a pH of 6.8-7.0 and 330-375 microSeimens. I wasn't sure what to expect. This tank was a bit small. It would take me time to free up a 55 gallon tank. First things first: let's see if I can keep these fish alive. All of the readings are contrary to what I know about Farlowella: they come from a soft water environment with a low pH and high temperatures. My instincts tell me they need a bit of swimming space due to their elongated bodies, but some articles say they don't move much. Do they really need a huge tank? Could I be headed for disaster or are my worries over nothing? I do know that impulse shopping seldom is a good thing.
After two weeks, it appeared these fish were right at home. One of the males would corral the pond snails into a corner of the tank and sit on them. This was very odd! What if this fish is practicing for breeding? Maybe it is just weird. Ironically, months later, this male is still corralling snails and sitting on them - he cleans them too. The way these fish swim is unique. They are awkward due to their body shape and fin placement. They shimmy in the water column. If a mid-level species was swimming this way, I'd be wondering what illness it had. When feeding, they hop on the substrate and then lift their heads up for a few moments to get the food down, all the while still hopping backwards. They look like a contortionist when doing this. When a fish runs out of room moving backwards, it goes to the other side of the tank and starts again. It's quite a sight. More than half of their time is spent foraging on the tank glass, lingering in one place. The other time is spent either foraging on plant leaves or on the substrate. Their diet consists primarily of vegetable material. A delicate plant (a Rotala sp.?) in this tank dissolved rather quickly, but that could have been me. The heartier plants such as Java Fern, Najas and Ludwigia sp. seemed to fare a little bit better at first. They are showing signs of wear and tear now, at the 6 month point. Even the Java Fern leaves have holes. The glass is very clean mind you. Farlowella readily accept flake foods as well as wafers and pellets. I stuck mostly with those prepared foods geared toward vegetable eaters, i.e., with a lower protein level. Due to the resident blackworms, I did not feed other proteins, such as frozen or freeze-dried foods to this tank.
What these fish lack in swimming skills they more than make up in the art of camouflage. They are meant to blend into their surroundings and are quite skillful at it. There would be days when I would be checking the floor because I couldn't find all the fish. I was looking for a jumper or a dessicated fish on the floor. The black background of the tank, the brown substrate and the green plant leaves all provided the comfortable confines they needed and so no jumpers. There were days when they hardly moved at all: quite reminiscent of Bunocephalus coracoideus (Banjo Catfish) but more diurnal. Farlowella are mostly passive and I would not recommend them in a tank with anything more boisterous than a mild Corydoras species.
Farlowella sp. female
Farlowella sp. fry
It appeared at least four of them were Farlowella vittata, the most commonly imported of the Farlowella species. The other two fish were, and are still, perplexing. They hide behind the heater and are tough to photograph. Their caudal fin has a much deeper bifurcation than F.vittata. From where they like to sit, it appears they like a warmer temperature. The rostrum of the female has a bit of a bulb on the end and is thinner than F.vittata. The male had a similarly narrow rostrum, but longer than the female. For now, I will call them Farlowella species.
After two months, the tank seemed to be thriving. The Corydoras trilineatus were still laying eggs on a regular basis. This group only lays eggs in ones and twos. The Farlowella were surviving. The ideal situation would be a tank twice the size, but why disrupt what is working? I decided to leave this tank alone and see what happens. It's an odd arrangement, but it works for now.
Around the middle of November, 2009, I was in my fishroom. I looked at the 29 gallon tank. I thought the driftwood had begun to disintegrate and splinter. But, splinters don't move! The tank was loaded with Farlowella vittata larvae. There were at least 100. I was stunned, amazed and shocked. I thought I was supposed to see the parents sitting on the eggs they laid on the glass. I read this in a book and I've read other's accounts. What did I do? What was different within the past month? I sat down and looked at my tank journals. These are simple student notebooks with lined paper with dates of water changes and anything unusual - just notes really. Not only had I done a water change as usual (a mix of pure RO and mains tap water), but three weeks prior, I cleaned the canister filter and tubing. It was only flowing in a slow trickle. When I finished cleaning, it was rushing like a waterfall.
But, another surprise was in store for me. The larvae I saw first were very dark in color. They had a distinct shape, a distinct finfold and mouth shape. A few days later, interspersed with the first group of larvae was a second group. They were much lighter in color and had a longer body. Was there another breeding pair? Was there more than one male or female participating in the original spawn? I needed to see the act and which fish were participating to know the answer. Would they spawn again? But first, how do I keep the babies I have alive?
I did some reading and found that Farlowella fry need lots and lots of food to survive. This type of feeding needs to continue well past their 5th month of age, according to Ingo Seidel. I decided to keep them in with the parents and feed twice daily flake food for the babies. The adults would get the pellets and wafers. I was able to position the flake food on the leaves of the plants where the larvae could access it best. There was a good bit of attrition within the first week. I'm not sure how long the fry were there before I noticed them. Some may have already been undernourished. At this point, I also decided to do more frequent water changes. I take out less water than my weekly water changes, but do it on a daily basis.
The first week of December 2009, I saw a rostrum peeking out over the Java Fern, near the rear left corner of the tank I glimpsed eggs. A male and female F.vittata were near the eggs. If I dropped food into the tank, one would stay with the eggs and the other would feed. They would trade off. This continued for five days. There was very little fanning until hatching neared on day four. The eggs were placed near the filter output. This seemed to help keep the eggs clean. This second brood hatched in stages. This leads me to think the eggs weren't laid all at once although I would need to see them actually lay the eggs to verify this. After two days, all eggs hatched for a total of 90 larvae. This was the number of eggs I counted on the glass. Once again, the dark colored species appeared first. A few days later, the lighter colored species appeared. Did they hatch the darker color and fade to a lighter color?
The yolk sac was surprisingly small. It lasted less than 36 hours, when the fry began eating with extreme gusto. Their first meal was finely crushed flake food taken from leaves near the top of the tank. Within another 24 hours, they were feeding in all areas of the tank. Three weeks have passed since the second brood hatched and their survival rate has increased. I would attribute this to paying attention to the eggs and when they hatched. The yolk sac is so small. Getting the food to them in a timely manner seems to be quite important. Once the yolk sac has disappeared and the fry are eating, they swim much more gracefully than their parents. This lasts for approximately 6 weeks when I noticed the shimmy-like motion appear in one of the juveniles. Another oddity in the first 6 weeks is a sway-back. But, it isn't at all a sway-back. It's their ventral and anal fins hoisting them forward so they can eat. Initially, I thought something was wrong with them. But, it's not. This is clear when the fry are viewed from the side on the glass or on a leaf with a magnifying glass. The fins can be clearly seen.
Farlowella sp. juvenile
Also surprisingly small is the rostrum. It is almost invisible when the larva hatches. The snout is almost rounded upon hatching. Within the next week, a small nub appears on the snout area. The nub grows a little bit at a time. I will be interested to see the growth process of the rostrum. The older brood has yet to show coloring similar to their parents, but they are beginning to grow the rostrum that makes them unique. At this time, the older brood approaches 2”, but are very thin. They eat well and require more feedings to maintain their small pooch bellies.
It seems the balance of power has shifted in the tank. The Farlowella species quietly took over the tank. There is never any visible aggression from either of the Farlowella species or the Corydoras trilineatus. What I saw twice is “jockeying” for position between two F. vittata males on the side of the glass where the eggs were last laid. It was exceedingly gentle by any standards. Several C.trilineatus were waiting below them and occasionally scurried when a slight move was made. The whole scene played in slow motion. It seems this is how breeding territories are claimed by F.vittata: with a sort of subtle aggression akin to a staring contest. But, I cannot see them every minute of the day. There may be other means.
The Farlowella vittata fathers allow their offspring to suck on their bodies for a short period of time. This behavior seems to begin after the yolk sac disappears to the second or third week after hatching. I have witnessed as many as seven fry on the father for a period of five minutes. Fry try this on the mother, but it doesn't work. She seems uncomfortable and shakes them off. At first, I thought they were eating leftovers expelled from the operculum. But, this was happening between feedings. This did not seem to bother the male parent in any way. I do not know how these Farlowella vittata and Farlowella sp. offspring will do in the long term. I think this was a set of circumstances that fell into place: the right fish from the right person at the right time. The hard work of keeping the offspring alive is up to me. Six weeks old and counting!