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February 21, 2014

The Sewa River of Sierra Leone is the most important stream in Sierra Leone for commerce. The shores of its upper reaches and middle basin are exhaustively mined for diamonds while the lower stretch is farmland, producing piassava and swamp-rice. Beneath the surface of the river, however, we find many beautiful aquarium fish – over 90 species of fish occur in this river, including killifish, catfish, mormyrids and knifefish. The Sewa is 150 miles long and travels through both native jungle and cleared farmlands. The natural habitat for most of these fish is that of the jungle areas with massive amounts of overhanging and subsurface vegetation, water stained dark by decaying leaf litter and fallen branches, and a moderate level of hardness.

The variety of cichlids in the Sewa is impressive – Hemichromis species known as the Jewel Cichlids and both Pelvicachromis humilis and P. roloffi are found in the river. One more popular species is found here – Anomalochromis thomasi, the “African Butterfly Cichlid”. These easy to care for, peaceful dwarf cichlids are an excellent choice for new cichlid keepers. With warm water in the mid-70s to 80 Fahrenheit and neutral to slightly acidic pH values, this will prove to be an engaging and beautiful addition to a West African aquarium. While juveniles may appear dull with a simple pattern of vertical dark bands over a beige base, the color of the adults is something to behold. In full breeding coloration, the four inch males show a beautiful pattern of iridescent scale spots over a rose-colored body. Splashes of red accent a black spot at the upper edge of the gill plate and each fin is colored brilliantly in blues and reds. In rest, a moderate banded coloration becomes visible beneath the blue spotting, while stressed individuals will display bold black markings over a grey base. There is little sexual dimorphism and the slightly smaller females are just as beautiful as the males – their black markings, particularly a tear mark beneath their eye, are slightly bolder. Breeding these little cichlids is quite easy – obtain a group of six or so juveniles and allow the maturing fish to form their desired monogamous pair bonds. Flat rocks or broad, flat leaves such as that of Anubias species will serve as spawning sites for the potential parents. The African Butterfly will be a bit territorial while spawning and defend their nest from other fish, but are typically content to merely chase away any trespassers.

Anomalochromis thomasi

Anomalochromis thomasi is a comparatively shy fish; a school or two of dither fish is recommended to give them a sense of security and encourage outgoing behavior. There are plenty of small Characins and Cyprinids native to the Sewa and surrounding areas to choose from, but Ladigesia roloffi “Jelly Bean Tetra” would make an excellent complement to the colorful African Butterfly Cichlid. The Jelly Bean Tetra is unfortunately hard to come by. It is such a beautiful and easily-kept fish with amazing color that this is quite tragic. This lovely one inch tetra can range in lateral line color from golden to chartreuse green. This coloration tints its otherwise transparent body and the fish often shows a blue sheen on the underside of its body. Brilliant splashes of color ranging from pumpkin orange to true red adorn its anal, caudal and dorsal fins and are often rimmed in black. In densely planted and well-maintained aquaria this fish’s color will tend towards the more brilliant green and red and can be accented through use of color-enhancing foods. The Jelly Bean is happy in neutral to slightly acidic warm waters, just as A. thomasi.

Ladigesia roloffi

An interesting accent fish for this Sewa river aquarium could be Nannocharax fasciatus, the “African Darter Tetra”. These odd little tetras are quite similar to the South American Characidium species, featuring a similar cylindrical body and strong ventral fins. Their method of locomotion is also similar with the fish propping itself on its ventrals and hopping across the substrate as they traverse the aquascaping. Lovely silver bodies with a dark and broad lateral line and vertical thick banding will contrast beautifully against most substrates and any variety of green or red aquatic plants. Unlike Characidium species, N. fasciatus is not a shoaling fish by nature and can in fact be fairly territorial to its own kind. Groups of this fish should be provided with plenty of hiding places to allow smaller individuals to avoid bullying. As with A. thomasi and L. roloffi, neutral to slightly acidic waters in the mid to upper 70s are ideal for this curious little Characin.

Nannocharax fasciatus

While not found in the Sewa proper, two other small aquarium inhabitants occur sympatrically with the above species. The first, Atya gabonensis, is known as the “Giant Blue Wood Shrimp.” These large filter-feeding shrimp are very full-bodied and can be very beautifully blue. It is thought that harder water encourages a bluer coloration, though an individual can change their coloration repeatedly throughout the year as they grow and molt their exoskeleton. As filter feeders, it is likely to see them perched facing into the current provided by the filter, their fan-like graspers opened to catch food particles from the water. When they’ve caught enough food, they swipe these fan graspers through their mouths to ingest their delectable morsels and re-extend them into the current. If there’s not enough food available to be filtered from the water, these shrimp can be seen perusing the substrate and other aquarium surfaces for leftovers. The Giant Blue Wood Shrimp can potentially be sensitive, as with most other shrimp, and should be added only to mature aquaria. While these guys rarely reach over four inches in the home aquarium, ideal conditions will allow them to grow up to seven inches! Don’t fret, though: these are perfect gentleshrimp and won’t harm any other aquarium occupants or plants. As with other shrimp species, the Giant Blue Wood Shrimp places a remarkably small bioload on the aquarium; one full grown A. gabonensis can be kept per 10 gallons of aquarium space. It is advised to supplement these fish with miniscule foods – spirulina powder or fresh baby brine are good choices for them to catch in their graspers.

Atya gabonensis

Atya gabonensis

Our other sympatric species may not be the best choice to house with the African Butterfly Cichlid due to their diminutive size and shy nature, but would house well with the other mentioned fish. The absolutely beautiful Neolebias ansorgii “Ansorge’s Neolebias” are quiet little inch and a half fish that prefer to be kept in a species aquarium, but will fare decently with other species of similar size. The sides of N. ansorgii are graced with a black lateral line over ruddy coloration. When comfortable, the fish takes on brilliant rust red and green tones with lovely red fins. I cannot recommend this adorable little fish enough. Our specimens are acclimated nicely to a pH value of about 7.5 with temperatures in the upper 70s Fahrenheit, but in nature they are most often found in acidic streams, ponds and marshes with pH values of about 5.0-6.0. A school of these sedate little beauties would look stunning alongside the contrasting Jelly Bean Tetra and Giant Blue Wood Shrimp.

Neolebias ansorgii

I do hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s venture to West Africa and the Sewa River drainage and we look forward to seeing you here again next week!

Jessica Supalla