Killifishes, Part 2: The Nothobranchius Family
By Robert J. Goldstein, Ph.D.
The most gorgeous and
challenging of the killies (in my opinion) are the Nothos (genus
Nothobranchius). These East Africa annual fishes live in open,
sunny savannahs in flooded fields, pools, rapidly expanding and contracting
lakes, river floodplains, and even cattle and elephant footprints filled
with rainwater and groundwater. The Nothos are fishes of ephemeral or
seasonal waters. Although some species get into permanent waters, the
eggs require a protracted drought where high oxygen tension from exposure to
air triggers sequential stages in larval development.
All fishes start out as
fertilized eggs or zygotes. The zygotes divide once, twice, and so
forth until the larva develops into a blastula, then a gastrula, and finally
a prolarva. The egg shell or chorion splits to release either the
prolarva (with undeveloped eyes, fins that are only buds, and no jaws or
gut) or a later stage larva that can see, swim and feed.
That’s the general
condition. In annual killifishes such as Nothos, several stages are
interrupted by resting periods or diapauses, when nothing at all happens
until either time passes or an environmental trigger starts the next stage.
Nothos go through these diapauses.
The most important
trigger for getting from stage to stage in development is high oxygen
tension. The most oxygenated water in a cold, babbling brook might reach a
dissolved oxygen level of 12 parts per million
(ppm), but most
aquarium water is about 3-5 ppm. Air, on the other hand, has an oxygen
concentration of 21 parts per hundred. It’s the high oxygen
concentration of dried sandy mud permeated with air that triggers
development from diapauses in Nothos.
The final stage,
hatching, is triggered by sharply lowered oxygen tension, as when the eggs
are submerged in water, combined with an increase in the carbon dioxide
concentration, as when organic materials (leaves, twigs, dead worms and
bugs) soaking in water rapidly decay. With increased carbon dioxide,
the hatching glands in the throat are stimulated to release the enzyme
chorionase. This enzyme dissolves the inner layers of the chorion or
shell, and the shell then swells with incoming water. Finally, the
thrashing of the stimulated larva breaks the outer remaining layer of
chorion, and the larva breaks free.
The Notho larvae are
active at once, searching for protozoa, crustaceans, and newly hatched
mosquito and other aquatic insect larvae. They grow rapidly, often
reaching sexual maturity in just 30 days. That’s important, since the
ephemeral pool may be a temporary winter rainy season pool that will dry out
again in two or three months. Nothos have very little time to grow up,
breed, and die, leaving their eggs behind for next year’s generation.
They breed against the
bottom, in materials that are usually a mix of sand and silt and mud that
doesn’t pack down so tightly that it smothers everything below. The
mud in many lakes and river backwaters tends to pack down and become anoxic
just a few centimeters below the surface. In Notho habitat, however,
the dried pools crack and split, and the sand and twigs assist in letting
air permeate the bottom, so the surrounding mileau doesn’t become anoxic,
which would kill the developing young.
And that brings us to
propagating Nothos in captivity.
Some Nothos are
territorial and aggressive to other males, some are social and get along
fine in breeding colonies, and still others can go either way, depending on
space and how they are raised. Nothos, like Bettas and Paradise Fish,
can be trained to fight by being raised singly in cramped quarters, and
that’s why most of us like to use large grow-out tanks. It’s not that
we worry about males killing other males, but about them killing the
(usually smaller) females.
Notho breeding tanks
can be as small as a gallon jar, but a ten gallon tank is better. Use
what you have, including plastic shoeboxes. Nothos are not jumpers,
but tank covers keep dust-borne oils out of the water. Most of us use
ordinary tap water for breeding, as Nothos are tolerant of considerable
hardness with no ill effects on the adults or eggs. In fact, the
addition of a level teaspoon of marine salt per ten gallons hardens the
water and increases salinity, both protective against skin infections with
velvet disease (Piscinoodinium).
To substitute for the
natural pond bottom, use a thin (perhaps quarter inch) layer of peat moss.
Deeper layers can become anoxic. Aeration is desirable but not
mandatory, and a hiding place for the female is a good idea, in case the
male becomes aggressive. Hiding places can be Java Moss, other
vegetation, or synthetic yarn spawning mops. Even PVC tubes can serve
Snails can help keep
the container clean, but they might eat some of the eggs. Freshwater
herbivorous shrimp are being tried by some aquarists as scavengers in
Because of the danger
of decay, feed live foods only, preferably Daphnia, Brine Shrimp, White
worms, Grindal Worms, Tubifex Worms, Black Worms, Fruit Flies, or
Microworms. Many aquarists also feed frozen foods, and a few even use
dry foods, but I consider these risky.
One option is to place
the peat moss in a glass goldfish globe and insert that into the breeding
tank. Then it doesn’t matter where the food lands or decays, and the
peat moss remains fresh, although you still want it to be shallow. The
male will find the peat moss inside the bowl, and the female will find the
male. In addition, the male’s protection of his breeding site gives
the female a needed break from pursuit as the male bangs his jaws against
You can harvest the
peat moss with the presumed eggs once a week or once a month. Some
people keep males and females in separate tanks, and just put a pair
together over clean peat moss, with no feeding, for a day, then separate
them again and harvest the peat moss. In my fish room, I keep a pair
or group together for a month, then completely change the tank, thereby
combining harvest with a complete water change. Other people change
large amounts of water twice a week or more. As you can see, Nothos
can be handled in many ways.
|Killifish eggs on peat moss stored in plastic bags.
Always label eggs with a date and species!
When the peat moss is
removed, it’s poured through a fish net that retains peat and eggs.
You can also clean the peat moss by swirling the mass in clean tank water,
but don’t clean it with chlorinated tap water or you might kill the eggs.
Then squeeze the peat moss with your fist to remove as much water as
possible, just as though you were squeezing a sponge. Don’t worry
about hurting the eggs. The chorion is hard as a pebble. Then lay the
peat moss on paper towels until the peat moss changes from wet brown to damp
tan. Don’t let it dry out too long, for once it becomes brittle dry,
the eggs collapse and die. With slight dampness, the eggs will begin
normal development; with wet peat moss, they won’t even start to develop.
Most of this is trial and error, green thumb, or dumb luck for most of us
hoping for a nice hatch. Other people consistently get high hatches.
Once the peat moss is the proper dryness, pack it in a plastic bag and store
it in the dark. Be sure to label the bag with what’s inside, the date
of drying, and the probable date for hatching.
Quite important is an
adequate incubation period or three to six months at high temperature (78°F)
that mimics summer in the dried pools of the African veldt.
When the eggs are due
to hatch, pour the peat moss into a shoe box with an inch or two of soft
water, such as distilled (DI) or reverse osmosis (RO) water. You can
get DI at the supermarket and RO at any pet store that sells corals.
The eggs will begin hatching within hours, and should be all hatched at 24
hours (all those that are going to hatch). Remove the fry with a food
baster or a cup or a teaspoon to clean water, and start feeding Brine Shrimp
nauplii right away. Put snails or live daphnia in the fry tank to eat
dead food and keep the water clean, and do partial water changes at least
once a week. When you’ve removed the fry from the hatching container,
re-dry the peat moss, as there may be eggs that did not hatch. Many
annual fishes produce eggs with different diapauses. This is a survival
mechanism that leaves some eggs for next year or for a late winter. It
spreads out the hatch so there are always some possible survivors, even if
most of the young are killed by a short rainy season and sudden drought.
Think of it as money in the bank that you can’t touch until you reach a
certain age. See, Nothos are good parents.
And that brings us to
the types of Nothos. There are many species, some large, others
minute. One small subgenus is called Aphyobranchius, with two
or three species to date. These one inch fish produce myriad minute
eggs that result in enormous hatches. Unfortunately the fry are minute
prolarvae that require space, oxygen, and infusoria (usually protozoa) as
their first food. This young stage lasts a long time, during which 90
percent of the fry die of starvation (in captivity). These fish are
suitable for beginners who keep green water or infusoria cultures around,
but that’s not everyone.
Most nothos are in the
genus Nothobranchius, but that may change. Some of the larger,
predatory types might some day be moved into a separate group, but for now
you can call them all by the generic Nothobranchius.
information and sources of nothos see: