Minimum Tank Size: 29 Gallons (110 Litres)
Care Level: Hard
Water Conditions: 6.5 – 7.5 pH and Soft
Temperature: 71-81 °F (22-27 °C)
Maximum Size: 3 inches (8 cm)
Bolivian rams (Mikrogeophagus altispinosus), or Bolivian butterflys, are a small, popular cichlid. It is found throughout the Amazon River, in both Brazil and Bolivia. It is one of the most popular dwarf cichlids (though this is vague term, that encompasses many small cichlids), and is often seen as an easier to care for alternative to the German ram, due to its similar shape and coloration.
It inhabits warm, soft, acidic waters, and is primarily found in rivers, streams, and ponds – though it has also been recorded living in a small lake in the past. It is primarily found in areas with a soft mud or sand substrate, and it is critically important to reproduce this in the home aquarium.
Bolivian rams stay relatively small in captivity, and grow to a maximum of 3 inches (8 cm) with the males growing slightly larger than the females. A well cared for Bolivian ram will live for around four years, though there are instances of them living slightly longer.
Bolivian rams are a relatively hardy cichlid, and are more tolerant of variable water conditions and lower temperatures than other comparable fish. However, they still require absolutely pristine water conditions, so extra care must be taken to maintain their aquariums.
Even though they remain small in the home aquarium, they should be provided with a tank that is at least 29 gallons (110 liters). Part of the reason for requiring a larger aquarium is that they should be kept in groups of at least six, though there is some evidence that they do better in even larger groups.
While it sounds paradoxical, larger aquariums are actually much easier to maintain. The water tends to be far more stable, and there is more room for error from the aquarist. Since Bolivian rams are so sensitive to poor water conditions, it is recommended to go with the largest tank that you can afford with your budget.
While they can technically be kept in a community tank, it is best if they are kept in a species only aquarium. They tend to be shy, and will often be out competed for food by more aggressive tank mates. If they are going to be kept in a community tank, their ideal tank mates are other soft water, non-aggressive minnow species, or other peaceful, bottom dwelling fish like corydoras catfish.
Their aquarium should replicate their natural environment, and it is vitally important that they are provided with a sand, or other small grain substrate. Bolivian rams spend much of their time browsing for food through the substrate, and gravel or pebbles can cause injury, and even in rare cases kill them if they are ingested.
It is also important to provide driftwood, caves and flat rocks in their aquariums. Plants can also be added to the fish tank, but they shouldn’t be viewed as a requirement, and open swimming spaces should always be maintained.
Bolivian rams need nearly perfect water conditions, and any aquarium containing them should be well filtered. With that being said, it’s important to strike a balance between water flow and filtration, since this species prefers a minimal amount of current in their tank.
Perhaps the best choice for a filter is a hang on back filter, though they are also an excellent candidate for a canister filter. The hang on back filter that I always recommend is the AquaClear Power Filter, and you can read an in-depth review of it here.
Bolivian rams are omnivores and mainly consume plant matter and small invertebrates in the wild. In their natural habitat, they feed by sifting through the substrate and you will often see a similar behavior in the home aquarium. They will take a mouthful of substrate in, and expel it through their mouth or gills afterwards.
While they prefer to feed from the substrate, they will also eat directly from the surface, and most will readily accept prepared fish foods. One of the best foods to offer them is Hikari Micro Pellets, and they will absolutely gobble this up.
Their diet should also be regularly supplemented with frozen of live foods. Some of their favorites are bloodworms, blackworms, daphnia, and brine shrimp.
If Bolivian rams are provided with soft water, and excellent water conditions, they will usually breed on their own. If you haven’t sexed them previously, the males can be identified by their larger size, slightly larger fins, and more intense coloration.
There doesn’t appear to be any specific breeding triggers, and a group of at least three males and three females should be kept together until they pair off. After they have paired off, a pair can then be removed to their own tank, and conditioned on a diet of high quality live and frozen food until they are ready to spawn.
Both males and females are involved in the parenting, and they will normally spawn on a flat rock in the aquarium. In rare instances, they have also been known to spawn on plants, and even aquarium glass.
The male will engage in courtship behavior, which includes body movements, and rapidly moving his head back and forth. He will then begin to prepare the spawning area and will also create a shallow pit somewhere in the aquarium. This behavior may last for two to three days.
Once the courtship has been completed, the female will then deposit 100-200 of her eggs in a straight row. The male will then fertilize the eggs, and this will occur several times until all the eggs have been laid and fertilized.
The eggs will be watched over by the female, who will fan the eggs and may occasionally start to cover them with substrate. The eggs will usually hatch after two to three days, and once they are hatched, they will be transported to the shallow pit that the male previously dug, where they will be watched over by both parents.
New parents will occasionally consume their eggs after their first breeding, though they generally get it right on the second or third attempts. You shouldn’t be too concerned if this happens the first times.