Nandopsis haitiensis - Male

A spawning of Nandopsis haitiensis

In the fall of 1987, I was fortunate enough to receive a gift of five Nandopsis haitiensis from my good friends, Dr. Ken Lazara and Bill McNiff. Ken and Bill are widely known for their expertise in killifish, indeed we are all three longtime members of the American Killifish Association and the Long Island Killifish Association. However, on their 1987 expedition to the Dominican Republic, they and Dr. Mike Smith of the American Museum of Natural History, collected among other things, the little known cichlid that is the subject of this article (editor: The name of this species was Heros haitiensis back in 1987).


Nandopsis haitiensis is confined to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola which is divided between the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In addition, it may be the only endemic cichlid found on the island. There is a second putative species, Heros vombergae, but this is still the subject of scientific inquiry (editor: now a synonym of Nandopsis haitiensis). Its other closest relative is Heros tetracanthus, the Cuban Cichlid, which, as its popular name would indicate, is endemic to the island of Cuba, and one of only two cichlids found there (Nandopsis ramsdeni being the other), indeed H. tetracanthus and H. haitiensis are similar in appearance.


Nandopsis haitiensis presents a typically robust, guopote-like, body configuration. The caudal fin is rounded and none of its fins displays any unusual length or filaments. The body coloration, outside of the spawning dress, is of alternating beige and light brown striations. The striation pattern is very faint. In addition, the anterior half of the body displays a jumbled arrangement of dark spots and dashes. Females display a dark spot at the base of their spiny dorsal fin, which males lack. The male’s dorsal fin, in mature fish, is a bit more pointed. The fins are colorless with the exception of the dorsal fin and the ventrals. The former mimics the blotched pattern of the body, and the latter are brown-tinged. At present, the largest of the fish, the male is about 5 inches in length, exclusive of the tail (SL). The largest of the females is about 4,5 inches. Lazara and McNiff report that, in the field, they observed specimens up to approximately six inches in length.

Nandopsis haitiensis - Female
Nandopsis haitiensis – Female


The fish in my care were collected in a creek entering the Rio Jaina, in water 0,5 meters deep. Other specimens were found in de Balnearneo Las Marias, the Arroy Rancho de Yagua, and the Rio Yagui. The waters which they inhabited at Rio Jaina were overshadowed by trees and shrubs, with grass and fine roots trailing in the water. Juveniles hide in this vegetation. The water was turbid, with a temperature of 33 degrees Celsius, and a pH of 7.35. The substrate consisted of sand, gravel, silt and leaf litter. For a more detailed account of the habitats of this species in Haiti in 1986, see Dan Fromm’s article in BB116 (October 1986) and Paul Loiselle’s article in this issue.

The tank

Upon receiving my five specimens, I placed each in separate 5-gallon tanks. At this time, the fish varied between 2.5 and 3 inches in length. I assume the pH was in the range of 7.2, as my tap water is 7.0, and I add salt and some sodium bicarbonate to it. In any event, the fish displayed no trauma or other ill effects following their introduction. Initially, I fed the fish exclusively on live guppies. These they aggressively hunted and devoured. The fish displayed very healthy appetites. I used live guppies, I suppose, out of an overabundance of caution due to the fact I knew I was dealing with wild animals. It now seems this caution may have been unnecessary. At present, I rarely give the fish live food as they are consummate eaters of all sorts of prepared and freeze-dried foods.


Not that all has been without tribulation. Two fish were lost to disease, which broke out about a month after I received them. These fish displayed the symptoms of a puss-like, white substance protruding from their bodies. They were alternately treated with various medications, ranging from Clout and Furanace to Malachite Green. While the fish showed some remission after treatment, only one healed completely. Nevertheless, I was grateful to be left with three healthy specimens.

Permanent home

After a few months of acclimation, the fish were moved to a more permanent home. This consisted of a 29-gallon tank, outfitted in the following manner. The substrate consisted of a mixture of #3 and #5 regular gravel and #3 dolomite. Filtration consisted of one outside power filter (180 gph) and a large box filter. A 100-watt heater was also provided. However, the most important aspect of the housing consisted of dividing the tank into three separate compartments (see drawing). Again, an overabundance of caution induced me to make that arrangement. My thought was to allow the fish to grow in peace by thwarting that well known Heros ferocity that especially displays itself in confined quarters. Indeed, this proved to be a very prudent arrangement.

Dividing the tank

The division was accomplished by using standard white fluorescent lighting grids (with 1/4″square holes), cutting the 4′ x 8″ strips into four pieces, and assembling them (as indicated in fig. 1) in the following pattern. The base, “A,” I cut 1/2″ less than the width of the tank. For its length, it is cut several inches less than the width of the tank, but this is not critical. Sides “B” and “C” are cut so that they leave no gaps between the front and rear panes of glass and so that they reach up to the beginning of the tanks plastic molding. Sides “B” and “C” are fastened at their bottom to base “A” by means of several plastic utility ties, pulled tightly. Piece “D” is used as a brace and consists of a small rectangle (roughly 3″ in width) placed towards the rear of the middle chamber and tied to “B” and “C” by means of plastic ties also. Each piece is placed into the tank one at a time, and, for ease of fit (trying to fit it in the tank after assembly is extremely difficult) tied together while in the tank. Gravel is added afterwards. The compartments were equal in size (approximately 10″ in length). Each received a large (4″ to 6″ diameter) clay flowerpot, laid on its side. In addition, the center compartment was weighed down with a large rock for stability.

Diagram of grid divider, see text
A spawning of Nandopsis haitiensis 6


The fish display some timidity. Upon approaching the tank, they generally retreat to the cover of the flower pot. In typical cichlid fashion, they also set about rearranging the gravel into various mounds. I have never tried plants, but assume they would not be rooted for long. The water in their tank was well aged before they were placed into it. In addition, approximately one teaspoon of salt per 3 gallons was added, and approximately one teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate and Epsom salt per 10 gallons was also used. This results in a pH in the moderately alkaline range. However, as I am not a believer that narrow or unique chemical parameters must be strictly adhered to for most fish, I ran no tests on the water. More importantly, I knew the water to be of the best quality in that it was free of pollution and would remain so due to careful nitrogen cycle management. Most importantly, the tank would be underpopulated, and the fish segregated and free of stress.

All went well with the fish thereafter. They ate ravenously. No diseases cropped up. They appeared to behave normally. Yet, I could not detect anything that I could describe as pre-spawning activity, not that this overly concerned me, as I regarded the fish to be on the young side. On a visit to my home, Dr Paul Loiselle opined that of the three fish, two of the fish, including the one in the center compartment, were females. This was excellent news, and at least gave hope for the future.

The future arrived – fry

The future arrived on Sunday evening on July 16, 1988. After returning from a family outing, I set about to do some work in my fish room. As I passed the Nandopsis haitiensis tank, I casually glanced down (the tank is situated on a rack, about 6 inches from the floor) only to witness a most startling event. There were about 200 baby fish swimming around in the center compartment! Equally striking was the fact that the fish guarding them, presumably a female (this was later confirmed), was entirely jet black in color, with the exception of her clear fins, save for the anterior portion of the dorsal which was also black. To say I was delighted would be a slight understatement.

I hurriedly set about to extricate the majority of the spawn from the tank. Once again, a precaution against any possibility that the fry might be eaten by the parent or the neighboring fish, including the father. Remarkably the babies seemed to treat the dividers as solid barriers. I noticed not one fry outside the center compartment, although it would have been extremely easy for the fry to swim through the 1/4″ square openings. It was, therefore, relatively easy to siphon out the fry with a clear 3/8″ diameter hose, as they stayed put in one place. A dozen or zo fry were left with the parent. The remainder of the fish were placed in a bare 5-gallon tank, aerated by one box filter. The water was made up of half newly treated water and half from their original tank. The fry seemed to settle in quite well. I fed them nothing that night. Owing to the summer heat, the water was quite warm, 84°F (29° Celsisu). In the spawning tank, the temperature had been 82°F, and the pH tested out at 7.2.

A remarkable feature of the fry was that they were a good 3/8″ in size. Their size was especially noted inasmuch as they were alongside a 5-gallon tank containing angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare) fry that had hatched out a week earlier and were considerably smaller. The fry did well. In the first two days, only a handful perished, but none died after that. The fry were fed newly-hatched brine shrimp and finely-ground prepared foods. High water quality was maintained by partial water changes every second day. After a week of care in this fashion, the fry were moved to a well-established, but bare-bottomed, 15-gallon tank to grow further.

The female continued to guard the remaining fry. She had also retained her jet black color. Only after removal of all the fry did her normal color return. It is regrettable that the fish does not maintain this ebony hue at all times. If it did, I am sure the fish would enjoy great popularity. Indeed, it would probably have significant commercial value as well.

Nandopsis haitiensis - Grid compartments allowed the fish to share the same tank compatibly
Nandopsis haitiensis – Grid compartments allowed the fish to share the same tank compatibly

Second spawn of Nandopsis haitiensis

Exactly one month after I had sighted the first spawn, I noticed that the female had turned black again. This induced me to do a close inspection of her compartment. Lo and behold, there was a mass of hundreds of eggs on the inside curve of her flowerpot, about midway from the bottom. The side chosen was the side closest to the male’s compartment. Nevertheless, as the flowerpot rested at a 180-degree angle to the grid separating them (see photo), I anxiously awaited to see if the eggs were fertile. A week later, the fry hatched. There were hundreds again. I was astounded at how the male had been able to fertilize these eggs. The male may have taken painstaking care to maximize the angle at which he had released his sperm so as to enable them to reach the eggs. On the other hand, he may have “flooded” the tank with sperm. This remains to be determined.

On the second occasion, I left the spawn in with the female (see photo’s). She zealously guarded the fry, and, again, they huddled about her, and did not stray into the other compartments. Regretfully, this experiment ultimately failed. About two weeks later, I could no longer see any fry. I assume their mother and/or her tankmates devoured them for some inexplicable reason.

Nandopsis haitiensis - Rio Jaina population - female in spawning trim with fry
Nandopsis haitiensis – Rio Jaina population – female in spawning trim with fry

Grow out tank

The fry from the first batch are being raised in a large but shallow 40 gallon breeder tank. They show no aggression towards each other at this stage (1 inch). They are fed primarily live baby brine shrimp. Howerver. they also eat flake food, freeze-dried bloodworms, and live black worms. I have distributed some of these fish to other local aquarists who report that they are doing well.

The fish have recently (February, 1989) spawned again. It is significant that on this last occasion, the water temperature was a moderate 76°F. The fry were observed free-swimming, in the open, about 12 days after the eggs disappeared (hatched). Of interest is the fact that the fry had dispersed themselves into the male’s compartment as well, and he was guarding them as would any good cichlid parent.

Welcome addition to the hobby

Notwithstanding the somewhat drab coloration of sexually inactive individuals, Nandopsis haitiensis is a welcome addition to our hobby. It has proven hardy and easy to care for. Although mine were wild fish, they adapted themselves remarkably well to captivity. Indeed, this is something of an understatement given that the fish spawned through a divider, without any physical contact, and yet accomplished fertilization so completely that over 200 healthy fry were produced. It is little wonder, that fish continually present an enthralling facet of our natural world; a facet, which, more than with any other group of animals, can be repeated in even the most modest of homes, and this feature alone no doubt will continue to endear fish keeping to future generations of aquarists.


I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. Ken Lazara and Bill McNiff for giving me the opportunity to work with the fish they collected. I would also like to tank them and Dr. Paul Loiselle for their assistance in the preparation of this article.


Joseph Ferdenzi

Copyright images

Joe Lozito
Ben Lee –

This article was first published in Buntbarsche Bulletin 133 – August 1989 – page 12 – 17

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