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It’s so easy,
By Richard Ross and Matt Pedersen
anyone can do it!
IMAGE BY RICHARD ROSS
anggai Cardinals (Pterapogon kauderni) are beautiful, peaceful ﬁsh. Their large, seemingly expressive eyes are hypnotic. And their dramatic ﬁnnage, bold black stripes, and white dots over a silver background make them a stunning addition to any aquarium. They are also one of the only marine ﬁsh that is considered easy to breed and rear in the home aquarium. So much so that they have been called “The Guppy of Marine Fish Breeding” and were the focus of this year’s easy category in the Marine Ornamental Fish & Invert Breeders Association annual breeder’s challenge. Breeding animals at home is always rewarding, but Banggais are a special case. Banggais often ship very poorly, resulting in a lot of deaths for recently imported animals. Each wild-caught ﬁsh offered for sale can represent several that died en route. Strong hobbyist demand for the Banggai Cardinalﬁsh has led to their over-collection. According to some estimates, nearly half of the wild population may be harvested for the aquarium trade in 2008 alone. Unfortunately, and unlike most marine ﬁsh, Banggai Cardinalﬁsh produce relatively few offspring over the course of their lives, so over-collecting can dramatically impact their wild
populations. In fact, Banggai Cardinalﬁsh were listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as an endangered species in 2007. This listing resulted largely from the work and research of Dr. Alejandro Vagelli, a Banggai Cardinalﬁsh researcher and advocate. Dr. Vagelli frequently travels to the Banggai Islands to conduct census surveys and monitor the population status of Banggai Cardinalﬁsh. If you take nothing else away from this article, we hope that anyone interested in keeping Banggai Cardinalﬁsh will ask their local store to help them seek out captive-bred specimens (when available) although they may not be the least expensive option at the time of purchase. Any extra up-front expense is quickly offset because captive bred Banggais are more successful than wild specimens at adapting to aquarium conditions. More importantly, every captive bred Banggai produced and purchased means not one ﬁsh, but several ﬁsh, can be left on the reef to help prevent the extinction of this treasured species. Best of all, for the new marine breeder, the Banggai Cardinalﬁsh represents an ideal point of entry into marine ﬁsh breeding, and a great way to obtain your ﬁrst success.
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Banggai Cardinalﬁsh are naturally found around Banggai Archipelago, as well as the Lembeh Strait off Sulawesi, Indonesia. It seems these ﬁsh were introduced to the Lembeh Strait between 2000 and 2002, perhaps for commercial purposes. In nature, Banggai Cardinals commonly occur in pairs or small groups and are often found amongst sea urchin spines, presumably for protection. They are also found hosting in sea anemones, sharing the anemone with one or more clownﬁsh. Banggai Cardinalﬁsh are one of only a handful of marine ﬁsh species that feature direct development of their offspring, meaning there is no pelagic or planktonic larval phase during the early life of a baby Banggai. This makes them incredibly easy to raise. Male Banggais carry fertilized eggs to term in their mouths, and the babies are released as fully formed miniatures of the adults. Newly released babies are immediately ready to eat small foods that are relatively easy to produce. Based on the notion that most Cardinalﬁsh species naturally form large schools, many people will make the mistake of purchasing a group of adult Banggai Cardinalﬁsh to school in their aquarium. Sadly, this is typically a recipe for disaster. Once the group settles in, a pair forms, and in short order the pair attempts to eliminate all the others. Only in larger aquariums, 100 gallons or more, may the keeping of multiple pairs be possible (and even then it is risky). While juveniles will school, once they start to sexually mature, individuals will become aggressive to the point of murdering conspeciﬁcs, so it’s best to keep Banggai Cardinalﬁsh in pairs. Banggais may be ready to breed as early as 4 months of age for males, with most becoming mature somewhere between 6 months to 1 year. It is useful to note that Banggai pairs are nonmonogamous so it is possible to keep two males in separate tanks, rotating the “bachelor” in with the female when the brooding male is isolated.
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For people with limited space, the best method for obtaining a pair is to simply purchase a compatible pair from a reputable source. They are available, but it may take some persistence and patience to acquire a breeding pair. If you cannot ﬁnd a pair, don’t despair. Though some claim differently, there is no proven sexual dichromatism or dimorphism to reliably distinguish males from females. However, sexes can usually be identiﬁed by observing the ﬁshes’ behavior. The most effective manner to sex Banggai Cardinalﬁsh is to “test” them against ﬁsh of known gender. When placing a banggai with another of the same sex there is typically a relatively quick ﬁght reaction. If they ignore each other, or hang out together, then the odds are good that they are of different sex and can be paired for breeding. Many aquarium stores house Banggai Cardinalﬁsh in groups while on display for retail sale. If the ﬁsh are mature and healthy, it is possible to observe the group and make a good guess as to the sex of an individual. The ‘ringleader’ of the group should be the female. In extreme cases, she may dominate a large portion of the aquarium with all the other ﬁsh occupying the left over space. Watch which ﬁsh the ‘ringleader’ chases, and pay special attention to those that she doesn’t chase. There is a good chance that any ﬁsh being allowed to routinely remain in the ‘ringleader’s’ vicinity is likely a male. Ask the LFS to catch the suspected male ﬁrst, as it will be easier to ﬁnd the ‘ringleader’ female again after the ﬁsh calm back down.
Male Banggai Cardinalﬁsh reorganizing the eggs in his mouth. Note the swollen mouth and gills indicative of a brooding male. Image by Matt Pederson.
Although it is possible to breed this ﬁsh in a ‘community’ tank, to maximize reproductive activity, pairs should be kept in isolated quarters. A young pair can successfully be kept in as small as an 18-gallon tank with moderate to high ﬂow. They often tend to prefer to have some macro algae to hide under, so ﬂoating a ball of chaetomorpha may be helpful. Put the tank in a low trafﬁc area if at all possible. It may also be possible to isolate the pair within an existing reef set up. Sumps and refugiums are often underutilized as areas to keep ﬁsh, and they may be perfect areas to house a breeding pair of Banggai Cardinalﬁsh. These areas often have an abundance of live foods and may be hidden away in stands, giving the happy couple the privacy that can help them get in the ‘mood’. Banggais are generally easy to feed, eating a wide variety of prepared foods including frozen mysis, brine shrimp and just about any chopped meaty food or small crustacean. Banggai Cardinalﬁsh, once established as a pair, prove to be willing and reliable spawners. They may spawn as frequently as every 30 days if given the opportunity, although there is evidence that females are capable of producing eggs as rapidly as every 2 weeks, faster than a single male can handle. After a year or two, this reproductive behavior can slow down dramatically – a ﬁsh at this age is likely past its natural life span and could be considered “old”, though Banggais can live up to 6 years in captivity. Courtship starts in the afternoon and is initiated when the female swims parallel to the male, and begins to quiver rapidly. She will then drop behind the male and quiver rapidly along his other side. This back and forth vibrating dance may occur on the day of, or the days preceeding spawning. The courtship dance in itself does not mean the ﬁsh will mate on that day, only that the ﬁsh are getting ready to mate. Interestingly, the courtship dance may even continue in the hours immediately after spawning.
Banggai Cardinalﬁsh are paternal mouth brooders, meaning the male keeps and incubates the eggs in his mouth as they develop. During spawning, the transfer of eggs from the female into the male’s mouth takes only seconds, so it may not actually be seen. Conﬁrming a spawn, however, is very easy because its effects are quite obvious. The male’s mouth and the area behind and below the gill plate become distended (giving him the appearance of a fat mouth), and he will also refuse to eat any food. The female may “guard” the male following spawning typically for at least a couple days. Make sure to note the date of the spawn, so you will have a good idea of when to expect the baby ﬁsh to leave the safety of the male’s mouth. This is especially important because the male can actually eat the babies once they hatch. Incubation will typically last between 21 and 25 days, during which time the male will continue to refuse to eat. Many breeders will isolate the male completely during incubation. Some isolate him after the ﬁrst few days after spawning, some starting around day 15 and some don’t isolate the male at all, preferring to strip (more on this below) the babies just before he would normally spit them out. Extreme care must be taken when moving a brooding male as the stress of moving him may cause him to spit out the eggs or babies before they are mature. A clear plastic bag, deli container or plastic cup rather than a net should be used to catch and move the male to the ‘nursery’. A refugium makes a particularly good nursery as it is ﬁlled with good potential ﬁrst foods for newly hatched Banggai Cardinalﬁsh. As fry release becomes imminent you will begin to see the fry’s eyes or ﬁns popping up above the lip of the father’s open mouth – a very exciting and satisfying experience. Some breeders will put the male into a freshwater livebearer breeding box for the release. These breeder boxes can be obtained from your local aquarium store. Once the fry emerge, they will swim down through the slats in the box into the nursery tank while the father remains trapped in the box, unable to eat the newborns. Some breeders will allow the release of fry to occur naturally, while providing cover, often in the form of a fake or real sea urchin, where the babies can hide from predators. Other breeders ‘strip’ the babies from the mouth of the males as soon as they are observed peeking out in order to remove any possibility of the father eating the fry. Stripping sounds scarier than it really is. Usually, all it takes to get the male to spit the fry is netting, or touching him with your ﬁnger. If netting or touching is unsuccessful, gently hold the male in wet hands; gently pry his mouth open with your ﬁngernail, or the round end of a paperclip like a tongue depressor. Dunk the male head ﬁrst into a container of tank water, and then pull him backwards, up and out of the water. The water should back-ﬂush through his gills and out his mouth, causing the fry to spill right out. Make sure to open the mouth and look inside for any stragglers. Afterward, make sure to return the male to the water face up, and open the mouth one last time to allow any air trapped inside his mouth to escape. After he calms down from this activity, make sure to feed him so he can begin to recover from all the time he didn’t eat while brooding.
Banggai eggs in a home made ‘egg tumbler’ at 14 days of development. A simple egg tumbler can be made from a glass and an aqua lifter pump to keep the eggs tumbling. Image by Matt Pederson.
Most pitfalls in the breeding process have to do with males refusing to hold eggs through to term. Stripping of the unhatched clutch, followed by artiﬁcial incubation with an egg tumbler, may be necessary for deadbeat dads. The most successful artiﬁcial incubation attempts seem to occur with eggs that have undergone a week or more of paternal incubation (for more information about artiﬁcial incubation see the MOFIB’s “Cardinalﬁsh - Pterapogon” forum at www.marinebreeder.org). There is a lot of speculation regarding why males will consume or spit their clutches prematurely. Common theories include excess stimulus (in the form of a crowded or small tank, or external movement by the breeder), and insufﬁcient nutrition/ nourishment, especially in pairs that spawn repeatedly (remedied by providing the male some rest and relaxation following the breeding cycle before reintroducing him to the female, another reason why rotating two males is a good strategy). Keeping and breeding the Banggai Cardinalﬁsh can be fun and rewarding. It’s also easy, so if you have a ﬁshless sump or a refugium, or an extra tank collecting dust, get to work! For more information on keeping and breeding the Banggai Cardinalﬁsh, check out the Marine Ornamental Fish & Invert Breeders Association (MOFIB) at www.marinebreeder.org. Special thanks to Dr. Frank Marini for his input on this article.
A school of 22 day old Banggai fry taking refuge in an artiﬁcial sea urchin made from epoxy putty and black zip ties. Image by Matt Pederson.
Newly released Banggai Cardinalﬁsh will eat immediately. Live baby Brine Shrimp (Artemia nauplii) are the reliable standard ﬁrst food for newly hatched Banggai Cardinalﬁsh, although there are some reports of success with non-live foods. Since hatching baby brine shrimp is easy and inexpensive, as well as fun, our suggestion is that it should be your ﬁrst choice. If you can locate decapsulated brine shrimp eggs, they are by far the easiest to use, although any brine shrimp eggs will sufﬁce. Other ﬁrst foods or supplemental ﬁrst foods may include any of the commercially available live copepods. Newly released juveniles should be fed a minimum of 3 times daily, with 5 feedings per day being suggested by Banggai breeding pioneer, Dr. Frank Marini. Fry can be weaned onto other frozen foods of the appropriate size within 30 days, at which point growth rates will increase dramatically. Secondary foods include Cyclopeeze, Cyclops, Arctipods, Prawn Eggs, Brine Shrimp and Mysis Shrimp (shaved or grated into bite-sized pieces). Feeding a wide variety of foods is always a good idea, and seems to develop healthy ﬁsh faster than a single feed diet. Furthermore, fry fed solely on baby brine shrimp seem prone to Sudden Fright Syndrome (SFS). During a bout of SFS, the fry will start twitching uncontrollably, sink to the bottom and stop breathing. Sometimes they recover, sometimes they don’t. Enriching the baby brine shrimp from the very ﬁrst days with Fatty Acid Supplements (such as Selcon) is helpful in reducing SFS. Branching out to additional prepared / frozen foods as early as possible can also reduce the risk of SFS. SFS seems often to be brought on by an external stimulus like a sudden loud noise, or bumping the tank, so keeping the fry in a quiet, low trafﬁc area of the house is recommended.
A school of 25 day old Banggai fry taking refuge in an artiﬁcial sea urchin made from epoxy putty and black zip ties. Image by Matt Pederson.