Female Jewel Cichlid with Fry

Hemichromis (Jewel Cichlids)

Red Jewel Cichlids
Color "moods" of H. lifalili

There are a number of small to mid-sized, primarily West Africian cichlids that are dazzling red with bright, sparkling, iridescent blue flecks, especially when breeding.  They are also, to the chagrin of many aquarists, extremely belligerent.  Collectively, they are known as the Red Jewel Cichlids.  Currently, they are described as separate species, and the four most familiar are as follows:
Hemichromis bimaculatus: Gill, 1862
Hemichromis cristatus: Loiselle, 1979
Hemichromis guttatus: Gunter, 1862
Hemichromis lifalili: Loisele, 1979

In my opinion, these are not distinct species, but rather a single specie with different populations that  express locale-specific phenotypic variation.  In some cases the phenotypes are somewhat consistent and  distinct, but much less so  in others.  It may, for example, simply depend on where along a particular route the fish were collected, with populations on opposite ends being more distinct from one another than those in between.  A comparison can be made to people.  Think of how the appearance of populations between Mongolia and Russia varies.  There is a distinctly Asian population at one end and a distinctly European population at the other.  In between there is a “gradient”, (for lack of a better description at the moment) of people who express varying degrees of characteristics of each of these populations as you move geographically from the Asian to the European continent, but there is only one specie.  Over the centries, distinctions in physical charactheristics has not resulted in speciation.   Such is the case with the Red Jewel cichlids.

The fish decribed as H. bimaculatus occur throughout much of West Africa’s hydrography, and also range throughout much of Central and North Africa. The fish described as H. lifalili have a more limited native range, which includes Lake Tumba and other waterways throughout the Lower and Central Congo River Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lake, however, along with its various tributaries and drainages rises and falls with the seasonal flooding typical of the entire region, suggesting that certain populations of both described populations are neither isolated nor containable. Perhaps this is why even wild caught specimens are not always as clearly identifiable as current literature suggests, and why collection/locale data is important.  In any event, as all red jewel cichlids will readily interbreed, those with identifiable collection information, as well as those without it should be kept separate, especially since deliberate cross-breeding and years of selective breeding has made identifying domestic fish even more complicated if not impossible in many cases.

Some color “moods” of H. lifalili

I expect at some point that all of the red jewel cichlids will be re-described as a single species under one (new) genus, and perhaps the current species names will be use to designate the different morphs.  Hemichromis might make a suitable name for the species rather than the genus, therefore; the new names could possibly read as follows:  xxgenus hemichromis ‘Bimaculatus’, xxgenus hemichromis ‘Lifalili’, xxgenus hemichromis ‘Cristatus’, etc.  The number of and positioning of the large, black spots is sited in some primary literature and all over the web as a way to differentiate species/populations.  This is not accurate.  Most all of them will have three spots at one time or another.  One on the operculum (gill cover), one mid-body, and one on the peduncle (the base of the caudal fin)  The peduncle and mid-body spots on these fish can come and go with mood or disappear altogether with age.   The amount and arrangement of iridophores (the metallic blue spots) are also used by some to distinguish populations, but the variation in these spots means nothing, as these are not only highly variable among the so-called species as designated, but they are highly variable among offspring from the same clutch.  This leads me to suspect that while researchers may have observed the characteristics of the fish that they collected, they may not necessarily have bred and reared these fish into maturity and over generations.  Otherwise, these characteristics and other intra-populaltion variations would have been observed and sited and not used erroneously to make population distinctions.

I have kept H. bimaculatus for many years, and the most consistent distinction that I can make bewtween them and H. lifalili is that  H. bimaculatus typically only disply intense color while breeding and rearing young. In H. lifalili both the male and female begin display intense coloration as juveniles and into adulthood whether or not they are breeding.  I find that their reds are more intense, ranging from bright scarlet to nearly burgundy.  I am currently working with H. lifalili and H. cristatus, the latter being a smaller, slimmer member of this group.  Both are morphs are spectacular!

A newly-formed H. lifalili pair.  The female turns bright read  to attract a mate, but
within a day or two he will “flame on” and become equally vibrant.
Hemichromis lifalil

Some may feel that red jewel cichlids have been maligned and don’t deserve their reputation for being too aggressive.  I disagree.  They deserve this reputation.  I occasionally hear accounts of them being kept in “peaceful” community set-ups, and I’d imagine that there exist individuals that tend toward docility, but they are anomalies, and anyone considering acquiring these fish should understand this.  Fully expecting that I would likely have to remove them before they became adulsts, I once tried to “socialize” 4 unsexed juvenile H. lifalili that were about 1 1/4″ in length into an established aquarium with fully grown 4″ Congo Tetras, several Kribensis sacramonis (Giant Kribs), and 2 actively breeding pairs of African butterfly cichlids.  This was fine for about three days.  On the fourth, the Congo tetras had had their fins sheared away, and all of other cichlids were cowering at the furthest reaches of this heavily-planted 65 gallon aquarium, while the four little jewel cichlids were front and center, clearly proud of themselves, and FLAMING RED!  The new rulers of the tank had exploded into blue-speckled, brilliant-red little monsters!  I was at once amazed  and horrified, and once I got over this spectacle, I removed them.   I also once added several sub-adults to an aquarium that housed several Electric Blue Jack Dempseys.  This made a striking display for about 48 hours.  Having seen no signs of aggression from either species, I walked in one day to discover all  three EBJDs floating and barely alive.  All were finless, mostly scaleless, and unfortunately, none of them recovered.    Years ago I kept an H. bimaculatus and a nominant Jack Dempsey together.   Nominant Dempseys are larger, sturdier and more belligerent than the Electric Blue Dempseys, and being larger than Red Jewel cichlids, can typically hold their own.  Not only did they get along, but they spawned!  Fortunately, since I have no interest in creating hybrids, the eggs were sterile.  Generally, Red Jewel Cichlids can be kept with successfully with other large, sturdy, ill-tempered fish, but these days I keep them all  in dedicated species aquariums.

Hemichromis lifalili

Red Jewel cichlids are not from the Rift Lakes (Lakes Tanganyika, Malawi and Victoria), and therefore do not thrive in the hard, akaline conditions attributed to those waters.  Perhaps this is why when combined with African cichlids indigenous to these lakes they often do not thrive, and can become the targets of the fish that are accustomed to Rift Lake conditions.  Hemichromis are from warm rivers, lakes and tributaries that have soft, acid, often tanin-stained blackwaters, much like the Amazonian cichlids.   When kept under these conditions they’ll be at their absolute best.

Distressed or dominated fish can turn a  dull olive greenish-grey, with slight pinkish-beige undersides, or just turn completley beige.  As for the iridophores;  once they develop, what you see is what you get.  They do not change with mood or condition.  A deepening in color intensity, display activity such as fin spreading and fanning, and increase aggression signal the onset of the establishment of dominance and/or breeding.  Unless these fish are in very large aquaria with plenty of sight barriers, once pairs form they should be isolated in order to avoid a tank-wide massacre.  While some may have had success breeding jewel cichlids in community set ups, it has been my experience that a breeding pair will not tolerate other aquarium inhabitants, even other jewel cichlids.  Fish that cannot escape the sight of of a breeding pair are usually killed if they are not removed.

Red jewel cichlids are aggressive regardless of whether or not they’re breeding,  and should only be kept with fish that can match them in temperament.    Conspecifics are usually a bad idea, although they can be housed successfully in large, well aquascaped aquaria with some of the larger, more sturdy South and Central American cichlds that have similar habitat requirements, such as Jack Dempseys and Green Terrors.   Lots of hideouts and sight barriers should be created using large rocks and branches. Plants not well-anchored will be torn out, and you can count on them to re-arrange whatever decor they can move.  Like many other medium to large sized cichlids, to whatever extent that they can, they will suit the aquarium to their own liking.