Flowerhorns, alias Nightmares
by Madhu Soodhanan
of Tamil Nadu, India
Enhancing the beauty of natural specimens, innovation to improve nature, developing beautiful and exotic breeds and strains - these are the words one may hear from a hybrid breeder or a hybrid loving hobbyist. But the truth is that hybridisation is nothing more than HUMAN AGGRESSION TO THE NATURAL WORLD. Many of us know of a lot of hybrids, with so called blood parrots and flowerhorns leading the list. In this article I would like to focus on the flowerhorn cichlid.
A demon fish created in Malaysia around 1996-1997 (which may possibly acquire legs and come out of the water one day!), this fish has made a storm in the hobby mostly in Asian countries, and is now spreading to the western world. The marketing and hence the demand for this fish has grown exponentially. Many breeders, distributors and LFS owners today have these creatures as their primary selling product.
The myth is that the nuchal hump of the flowerhorn resembles the Chinese God of Longevity. It is believed that the black markings on the fish bring luck and prosperity to the owner in accordance to feng-shui.
Generally, Chinese believe in mythical creatures like dragons. In recent times arowanas (belonging to the group Osteoglossidae and otherwise called bonytongues) were believed to bring prosperity as they resembled the mythical dragon. Similarly, the myth of the flowerhorn is that the Chinese God of Prosperity had a hump in his neck and so does the flower horn. It is believed that as the nuchal hump grows so does the bank balance, prosperity and longevity of the owner.
So far, the exact origin of the fish is unknown except by the ones who created it. But many researchers and experts believe that six cichlasoma-like cichlids were involved in assembling this fish. Cichlasoma trimaculatum (trimac cichlid), Cichlasoma festae (red terror), jingang blood parrot, Amphilophus citrinellum (midas cichlid), Amphilophus labiatum (red devil) and Vieja synspila (redheaded cichlid) are believed to be its parents. There are so many strains and breeds of flowerhorns today that it is nearly impossible even for an expert to identify what species were involved to create such a hybrid.
Some flowerhorns are even dyed, and/or hormone induced.
EXPONENTIAL GROWTH OF PROFITS for breeders, distributors and LFS owners. A single specimen flowerhorn has reached a price of US$319,790.
From this price tag the purpose is quite obvious. No one will be able to sell a trimac, a midas, a red terror or a redheaded cichlid for more than say US$100 or $200. Big gains in the short term is the only purpose behind the creation of this so-called exotic fish. Even today the demand for flowerhorns is high, and a colourful flowerhorn with a big hump will sell for nothing less than $500.
So why are people crazy about this fish?
The answer lies in one coincidal incident. A person is said to have won a million dollars in a lottery by bidding the number corresponding to the bands in a flowerhorn. This news spread like a fire-storm all over far-east Asia and a lot of people hoped to become millionaires just by owning a fish.
Another reason for the craze for this fish is its beauty. Many flowerhorn breeders claim this to be the most beautiful fish.
It is also very easy to care for. I have seen one housed in a 20 gallon long tank with no problem. The fish grew to a size of around 10" with a big head, even in such a constrained place.
Flowerhorns are most popular amongst amateur hobbyists who seek only colour, beauty and luck in a fish. They are the ones who really don't understand the very ethics of the hobby, or that fishes are more than mere colourful swimming objects.
Catastrophe in the hobby
1. The biggest threat of flowerhorns to the fish-keeping hobby is that it has become very difficult to identify a pure species from a hybrid. Often a dull-coloured flowerhorn is sold as a trimac and a red flowerhorn is sold as a redheaded cichlid. Many LFS sell flowerhorns in sizes of about 1½". At this size some flowerhorns resemble convicts or orange chromides. One hobbyist in my locality mistook this fish for a convict and dropped it into his Central American tank. When this demon fish grew it terminated its tank mates and by the time he realised that it was a flowerhorn it was too late to save its tankmates.
2. The high demand for more strains has led breeders to some cruel practices:
- Round bellied flowerhorns are much sought after, and the spines of these fish are purposely bent using some technology.
- Rich coloured flowerhorns are sought after, and these fishes are dyed.
- A nuchal hump is sought after, and these fishes are constantly stressed by a mirror, very strong lighting and fluorescent gravel.
3. Aquariums are highly constrained environments. So the probability of a hybrid like this one mating with a pure species is very high. If breeding of these toy-fishes continues at such a high rate, then one day we may not see any pure species in the hobby.
4. Since it is a hybrid its characteristics are undeterminable. No one is sure of what these creatures are capable. To my knowledge a flowerhorn is tough enough to take over an oscar and most cichlasomines such as Texas, redheaded cichlids and severums. Also if one goes for tankmates for this fish, the tankmates and hence the hobbyist will be sitting on a ticking time-bomb.
5. Today flowerhorns have found a way to be true breeders, unlike blood parrots. People are breeding different flowerhorns together. For example, let us take FH1 as a flowerhorn developed by crossing a trimac and a red terror, and another flowerhorn FH2 is developed by crossing a trimac with a redheaded cichlid. If FH1 and FH2 breed, the resulting one will be a new kind.
A demon giving birth to a demon of a new kind. Just imagine how awful the future of the hobby would be.
6. Flowerhorns attain sexual maturity at around 4" and from then on they will lay around 200 eggs every six months. If the production rate rockets up and fills aquariums, where will the pure species go? Then one day Local Fish
Stores will become Local Flowerhorn Stores. In many Asian countries this has already happened.
Nightmare to Nature
The biggest threat that these monstrous creatures possess is to the natural world. This fish is believed to be a feng-shui fish. A bigger hump and good colouration is believed to bring good luck, so obviously the vice-versa is believed. When a flowerhorn loses its hump and/or its colour it is thought to bring bad luck. Thus, many owners just throw flowerhorns into nearby water bodies, and these 'Franken-fishes' (as Dr. Ron Coleman calls them) take over the entire eco-system of that particular watershed. Most flowerhorns are brought up by being fed live fish. When a 10" fish raised on such a diet is introduced into a watershed the result is obvious.
Here is a case study:
There is a small pond called Ammapet pond in my locality (in the state of Tamil Nadu, India) with an area of around 4 sq. kms. Many barbs, mosquito fish, a few Asian native cichlids such as Etroplus maculatus (orange chromide) and Etroplus suratensis, and a rich vegetation of hydra and other water weeds used to call that lake home. Some flowerhorns were released into the pond by a few hobbyists. These flowerhorns grew to around 12" in the wild and bred there. The smaller species including orange chromides were taken as lunch. Green chromides were bullied and massacred by these aggressive creatures. There were no fish to feed on the vegetation and the water level depleted. There were no mosquito fish to feed on mosquito eggs and the pond became a breeding spot for mosquitoes. The entire ecological balance of the pond was ruined by just a handful of flowerhorns.
Stories similar to this have become very common in Malaysia. Almost all watersheds in Malaysia have been infested by this fish, although no instances of this fish entering Malaysian rain forests have been reported yet. But in future if these devils find a way into the forests then highly endangered species like the Asian arowanas (Scleropages formosus) already in CITES Appendix I, and other native fishes will vanish.
Aquariums should be considered to be miniature versions of natural habitats. Even though we are not able to establish perfect ecosystems in our aquariums, we can try to provide environments as close as possible to natural habitats to enjoy their beauty.
- If you buy a flowerhorn for the nuchal hump, take a look at the frontosa (Cyphotilapia frontosa) a Tanganyikan cichlid. When left in small groups in a big enough tank the dominant male develops a hump which no flowerhorn will produce.
- If colour is what you seek in a fish, then take a look at the redheaded cichlid (Cichlasoma synspilum). It's got all the colours of the rainbow.
- If you desire black markings, a trimac (Cichlasoma trimaculatum) has a distinct pattern.
- If you are looking for pearls, consider the Texas cichlid (Cichlasoma cyanoguttatum).
If there are natural specimens that have all the traits one expects in terms of sheer beauty then why go for the man-made stuff? There are 1500+ known species of cichlids in the wild and hundreds with striking beauty and amazing personalities available to the hobby. This availability is rich enough to fit anyone's need. Let us respect Mother Nature. Doing something awful is not difficult but the consequences would have to be faced. As far as we know only one planet holds the key to create, support and cycle a phenomenon called Life. Let us not cheapen it or take it for granted.
So STOP BUYING HYBRIDS, and if you ever come across one never hesitate to kill it. Even if your conscience doesn't allow you to kill it NEVER THROW IT
INTO ANY WATERSHED. We as a species have the power to conserve nature's creations but do not have the right to redesign them. So say no to hybrids, hormone induced fishes and genetically redesigned species.