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I have been interested in cichlids since I was a young teenager, I bred my first dwarf cichlid around the age of 18, this sight of a pair of krib’s guarding and guiding their fry started my obsession with the dwarf cichlids of West Africa and more recently the dwarf cichlids from South America, especially species from the genus Apistogramma.

As you get further into any kind of aquatic specialisation it becomes ever more necessary to study the chosen subject and its natural habitat in closer detail, with Apistogramma especially, if you do not do this groundwork with some of the more unusual wild caught species you do not stand much of a chance to breed these fantastic fish. Luckily there are several excellent publications that provide very detailed habitat information for hundreds of separate species, there are also several foreign Apistogramma experts that are willing to share their experiences and photographs online for fellow enthusiasts’ to look at and learn from.

A mature Male Apistogramma norberti surrounded by leaf litter to mimic his natural environment.

It was in my first initial studies that I realised that Apistogramma habitats are usually small slow flowing side streams of larger tributaries and rivers, these side streams are running over mineral free sediments and contain water runoff from the tropical rainforest, this water is extremely soft and usually acidic to highly acidic, plants do not usually grow in these streams due to lack of overhead light blocked by the dense forest above. The habitats usually have a sand or in rarer cases a mud substrate, this is usually overlain with a layer of dead and decaying leaf litter and fallen wood from the forest above, this layer can be as little as the occasional leaf sitting on the sand substrate., to as much as several feet deep in places, some stretches of water can have 100 yards of thick leaf litter, others can have miles of the same habitat.

Tropical Amazon rainforest floor (Rio Negro Basin)

To most people this inhospitable place would be the last place on earth that you would expect to find a thriving community of living creatures! Wrong, studies have shown that a enormous amount of living creatures make this leaf litter habitat their home, from invertebrates such as shrimp and prawns, to fungi and bacteria and of course the species of fish that make this place their home. Many small catfish make this habitat home, the dense leaf litter provides many hiding places to avoid detection and to hunt their pray. I know the leaf litter as a Apistogramma hotspot, many collectors will not bother to look for Apistogramma if no leaf litter is available. Some authors have studied and reported in detail that some Apistogramma can be found in huge densities in these leaf litter communities, using a method of catching every fish within a one meter square until no more can be collected has found densities of upto 400 fish per sq meter…This sounds astounding but if you think and look at the habitat, the leaf litter may be 2ft deep and contains a huge amount of mini territories! Each fish would be happy with a tiny area centered on one particular leaf to call home, they forage en mass for food in the water above the leaf litter but also below, deep down amongst the leaves. This dense area also serves as a very efficient hiding place and all fish will dart downwards at any sign of danger, be it aquatic or danger from above the water these fish are strongly tied to these habitats of leaf litter. Apistogramma are secretive spawners and will lay their eggs in any place that they feel at home, in the wild there is noone to offer them a upturned plantpot or a nicely shaped half coconut for spawning, no the natural method is to usually find a leaf that can be securely defended and then the female will lay her eggs on the underside of the chosen leaf and defend it with her usual devoted broodcare.

Apistogramma cacatuoides 'Wild female' with a clutch of fry under the curled leaf.

So what does all this have to do with keeping dwarfs and Apistogramma at home? Well I keep and breed a large amount of dwarf cichlids, i like to setup what can be described as a biotope aquarium for spawning these fascinating creatures, my opinion is that if the fish feel perfectly at home then you the aquarist should only need to provide the correct water and enough quality food to get these fish to spawn and raise their young. Many rarer species of Apistogramma are imported directly from their chosen stream containing leaf litter and it makes sense to provide the same habitat at home in your aquarium.

I start by actually collecting enough leaves to start with.. But which ones? Well a trip to your local park in late autumn, early winter is required. What I look for is oak and beech trees, both of these species of tree are safe to use in a aquarium, you need to collect clean, preferably dry leaves that are still intact with no rot or damage, these leaves need to have dropped naturally to the ground, please never collect green leaves directly from the tree or you could run into trouble with the leaves still containing chloroplasts and other living tissues that you don’t want in a aquarium, you are looking for brown dead leaves that have naturally fallen to the ground. I visit my local forest with my three children, we have a nice walk around and play, once back at the car I then get bin bags out and collect enough oak and beech leaves to fill two large bags. Be careful not to collect from car parks or at the roadside! Petrol or oil pollution can then become a issue. Once back at home I leave the bags in my shed outside for a week to allow any bugs or creatures to escape and find new homes, after this I bring the whole lot into my space heated fishroom to fully dry out for several days. I then fill a couple of smaller fish bags with a immediate supply of dried leaves to use in the coming weeks and then store the rest of the dried leaves in a large bag in either my loft or shed for future use, I have found that dried leaves can still be used safely 15months after collecting although I collect every winter for a fresh supply.

Amazon tributary, a typical habitat of Apistogramma in the wild.

Now, when I first started using these leaves in my aquariums I used to boil them first, this method ensured that they were sterile but also leached most of the beneficial tannins from the leaves before they had even hit the aquarium water, after gaining some advice from Mark Breeze on this subject I started to add the dry leaves directly to my tank after a brief rinse under the cold tap. This method allows all the beneficial tannins to be leached into your tank water where the fish can enjoy them and not to be wasted in a bucket! The dried leaves float at the surface for up to 24 hours, they then soak up enough water to slowly settle on the aquarium substrate in a most natural manner, I have never placed or tried to control where the leaves lay, I simply add a handful and enjoy the natural look of the tank when they have settled on the base or across the wood, quite often they will form natural drifts in the flow and will look very effective.

It is also worth having a quick look at the effects of the leaves and their tannins in the aquarium environment. The leaves will slowly break down over time and will release mild tannic acids into the aquarium, these stain the water a amber colour over time and make the aquarium biotope look like a very authentic blackwater habitat, this colouration can be controlled with either water changes or carbon filtration. I am often asked if the leaves have any effect on water chemistry? Are they good for lowering PH? Well the answer can be complicated so I will try to explain. All decomposing items in a aquarium will gradually add to the acidity of your aquarium water, in my experience leaf litter in my tanks has never performed any huge drops in ph, I have noticed a slow gradual drop but with large weekly water changes the water remains the same as my source water constantly, the acids in the leaves are basically not strong enough to drop the ph by any significant level, as long as there is some hardness in the water to buffer the Ph then the leaves will remain a safe addition to the tank. If you wanted to drop the PH by any major means I would recommend phosphoric acid and to use electronic meters to record the ph as you work and of course be very careful!

Leaves can help to drop the pH in your aquarium. This reading was taken in the Rio Negro, Brazil.

I cannot think of much more to add other that the fish I keep absolutely thrive in the tanks with leaves as a décor, I find my Apistogramma will often spawn under a leaf and use them for both shelter and breeding, I don’t just keep Apistogramma with leaves, ive used them with African cave spawning dwarfs such as Pelvicachromis and Nanochromis sp and have also bred many substrate spawning dwarf cichlids such as Dicrossus and microgeophagus that have used the leaf litter as a spawning substrate..I would guess that many other species of fish would find this natural décor very much to their liking. Maybe you can try it in your home aquarium and see for yourself?

Female Apistogramma piaroa with her fry over a oak leaf.

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