The Panda Dwarf Cichlid Apistogramma nijsseni (named after the female's presentation of black blotches) is one of the newer arrivals to the fish keeping hobby and as a scientifically recognized species. Also known as Nijssen's Dwarf Cichlid, these fish were only described as recently as 1979 by Kullander and have quickly become a welcome and popular addition to many community tanks!
One notable feature of this fish is how differently colored and patterned the males are compared to the females. This is notable mostly because it is only the females of this species who sport the eponymous 'panda bear' patterning, while the males display a broad array of colors. In addition, these cichlids are known for being excellent parents and one of the easier species of cichlids to breed. These interesting features coupled with their small size and peaceful nature make them a great choice for an advanced aquarist looking to keep a smaller community tank.
The Panda Dwarf Cichlid tends to be a bit thicker and bulkier in the body than most other dwarf, or Apistogramma, cichlids. Still they are very small cichlids, with the males reaching less than 3' (7.5 cm) in length and the females only about 1.75" (4.5 cm). With a pair of these attractive cichlids you also get that cool cichlid personality, only in a small package. Watching them share the raising of their fry is quite a sight and their small size makes them more manageable than many of the other cichlid species.
These fish can be kept in a community tank with non-cichlids and even with smaller fish. The best tankmates for the Panda Dwarf will be peaceful fish around the same size, or slightly smaller, who tend to stick to swimming towards the top of the tank. This will include many types of Hatchetfish, Neon Tetras, Zebra Danios, and many others. Provide a substrate of small dark gravel along with rocks and pots to create plenty of caves, one for each female's territory. They do enjoy densely planted aquariums and floating plants will help to diffuse the lighting. Make areas for them to "defend" by having natural divisions in the aquascaping.
This colorful dwarf is moderate to difficult to care for since water changes must be performed frequently. It does well in acidic water, needs the nitrate levels low, and the pH level must be kept within the correct parameters. A wild Panda Dwarf Cichlid is more sensitive than a tank bred specimen and breeding wild caught specimens with captive bred helps to keep the lines healthier and the fish more hardy. If water quality is ignored, as with all cichlids, disease and death can occur. Just a little dedication will reap pleasurable results from this little fish.
The Panda Dwarf Cichlid is a small colorful fish with a bit thicker and bulkier body than other members of the Apistogrammagenus. The males are the larger sex, growing to 3"(7.5 cm) in length, while females only reach about 1.75" (4.5 cm). They can live about 2 - 5 years.
The male sports an array of colors. The basic coloration is a blue through the center area and near the dorsal fin. Along the back are several black "background" blotches that extend from the head to the tail fin, with one dot right in the middle of the caudal area. They have a silvery blue sheen in between the blotches that extends down below the midline of the body in some areas. The belly is yellow as is the anal fin and most of the tail fin. The tail fin presents a progression of colors beginning with yellow, turning to a blue, then black, and ending with a red edging of the fin.
The females are mostly yellow with several black blotches on the body that give them the "panda" name. One black blotch is under her eye and extends to the lower end of the gill covering. Another is in the middle front and a third at the caudal fin area in the middle, but leeching into the tail fin. The dorsal fin has a black blotch on the first several rays and the pelvic fin has black as well. Her tail fin is a drab yellow/gray color with the edge trimmed in an orange/yellow color.
All cichlids, along with some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish, share a common trait of a a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth located in the throat, along with their regular teeth. Cichlids have spiny rays in the back parts of the anal, dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins to help discourage predators. The front part of these fins are soft and perfect for precise positions and effortless movements in the water as opposed to fast swimming.
Cichlids have one nostril on each side while other fish have 2 sets. To sense "smells" in the water, they suck water in and expel the water right back out after being "sampled" for a short or longer time, depending on how much the cichlid needs to "smell" the water. This feature is shared by saltwater damselfish and cichlids are thought to be closely related.
The Panda Dwarf Cichlid needs to be housed in at least a 20 gallon tank. They will only feel safe when provided with plenty of hiding places and areas where they are not visible to tank observers. This can be acheived in a number of ways, including forming caves out of rock, flowerpots, plastic tubing, and sunken driftwood, as well as keeping some floating plants for them to swim among. The substrate should be made up of a soft sand/ gravel mix with hand fulls of dried leaves to give a natural feel. The leaves will help provide a comforting "black-water" feel to the tank by releasing a tea-stained coloration and will also help provide a breeding ground for beneficial microbiobial colonies. Be sure to remove and replace these leaves every few days. Alternatively, you can add a bag of aquarium safe peat to the filter to help simulate the "black-water" environment without the mess of the leaves, but also without the benefit of the microbes. This peat should be removed and replace about once a week.
The filtration should be efficient but not powerful enough to create more than a moderate amount of water movement. The Panda prefers moderate lighting preferably diffused by floating plants. Plants like Taxiphyllum, Anubias and Microsorum will grow best in that environment. Patches of plants make for great areas of shade and hiding places for this little cichlid.
The Panda Dwarf Cichlids are cave spawners. They appreciate upturned flowerpots, fake "coconut caves," bogwood, and broad leafed plants for cover and as spawning sites. They require breeding conditions of a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, a water hardness of 5 - 8 dH, and a temperature of 79° to 84° F (26° - 29° C) with frequent water changes.
They should be kept in a harem of one male to at least 3 females. The female will approach the male, curve her body, and display to catch his attention. When he sees her, he will then "dance" by flashing his fins. The female will lay oval eggs on the roof surface of her cave. The male will fertilize them and then promptly leave the cave to patrol on the outside.
The female and male will care for the eggs which will hatch in for 3 to 4 days, depending on water temperature. The fry are free swimming a few days after hatching. Both parents will guard the fry together and watch over them carefully. After a month the female will chase them out of her territory. The male will continue to watch them for one more week and then they are on their own. If there are several females, the male may fertilize another female's eggs and let her care for them on her own. This depends also on the males personality, as to which batch of fry he will tend to. Note: do not keep the fry in the same aquarium with corydoras as they tend to eat live fry during the night.
The fry can be fed liquid foods and rotifers once they are free swimming and then fed artemia anuplii or live freshly hatched baby brine shrimp after about a week or two. The fry should be fed around 3 times a day. Sexing the fry is pretty easy since males have the red in their tail fin and the females are yellow.
If you are interested in obtaining more of one sex than the other, a system that works for the Cockatoo Cichlid may work for the Panda Dwarf Cichlid as well. It has been stated that for the Cockatoo Cichlid if the water temperature is low (68° F or 20° C) most of the fry will be females, while with higher temperatures (86° F or 30° C) the fry will mostly be male. pH also plays a role in the sex of the fry, but to a much lesser extent. These conditions must also be kept constant for the first 3 weeks to be effective.