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Who Needs Another Hybrid?  

by Dr. Ronald M. Coleman, Dr. Michael K. Oliver, and the Authors of Malawi Cichlid Homepage: Dr. George J. Reclos, Francesco Zezza, Patrizia Spinelli, and Frank Panis

blood red parrot cichlid
Red Blood Parrot ’Cichlid’ — a classic hybrid that
has been disgracing tanks for over a decade

(Addendum: The latest outrage — Glow-in-the-dark pet fish)

M any aquarists know the Red Blood Parrot “cichlid,” a hybrid which has been around for some time and has found its way into many tanks for many reasons (especially, ignorance or the famous “who cares?” concept). However, it seems that even all that has been written and the great controversy this hybrid created were not enough to stop breeders from pursuing easy money in this field.

Recently, we came across an announcement for a new “cichlid,” a man-made hybrid called “Flower Horn.” For people like us (African cichlid lovers), who go to great lengths to ensure that the fish we keep, donate, or sell are pure species, this is something unacceptable. For people like most of you, driven by the philosophy of true fish keeping and an inherited love for nature, this whole idea is (or should be) disgusting. Using nature’s precious jewels to produce aquatic monsters (“Franken-fish” according to Dr. Ron Coleman) is something we should protest against and make sure that at least some people hear this voice. This is the reason behind this article. We will do our best to ensure that more and more people hear about this, get educated, and finally understand that there is no reason to buy this “kind” of fish for their tanks. Breeders producing such fish try to make a fish that has a special appearance or shows a specific behavior, give it an exotic name (like “Flower Horn”), and then sell it for many dollars/pounds/euros/yen to people who are tempted by the appearance of those “creatures” and supported by their ignorance. Hybrid fish are not meant for the serious aquarist; this is the simple truth. This is the philosophy of the authors of this article — the people behind the participating Web sites — and we will always fight against those who think they can play god — or, should we say, antigod.

Francesco Zezza, an author of Malawi Cichlid Homepage, expresses his feelings in his own way:

      In the context of this article I’d like to add my personal point of view. Let’s begin with this: I’m NOT a scientist or a researcher. I’m simply a hobbyist (may I dare to add an advanced hobbyist) lucky enough to have visited (twice) Lake Malawi and the Amazon basin. Hence, I do not have the scientific background to discuss genetics, hybridization, chemistry and so on but I have been keeping fishes (and cichlids) for over twenty years. I’ll try to focus on the issue which is called “well being of the fish.” This always meant to me that I had to study, at least, the VERY basics of the fishes I’m planning to keep. Well, let’s focus on what is suggested by the breeder himself for raising (and training!) this latest result of human madness … I quote from their suggestions (by the way they call them “instructions” as if they’re referring to a toy and not a living creature!!) and then I’ll add my remarks — step by step — listed and numbered [ ]:
    ‘Flower Horn‘ hybrid “The value of the Flower Horn is from the ‘nuchal hump’ on its head [1], the pearl dots on its body, the redness of its fins and body and the roundness of the body on the whole [2]. In order to get the hump on the head to a reasonable size, one can place a mirror near the aquarium in order to get the fish excited. Looking at the mirror is like it is facing another fish and since this species is territorial in nature it will try to chase the mirror image away. Through this method the ‘nuchal hump’ on the head can get bigger and the colour of the fish itself will brighten up [3]. It is also advisable to put in small stones preferably coloured stones in the aquarium. Playing with the stones is another kind of stimulation which can enhance the ‘hump’ on its head [4].”

[1] There is nothing new or spectacular here. The cephalic hump is a distinctive sexual characteristic of many cichlids. There are many species around with this characteristic — no reason to choose a hybrid for that.

[2] Same here. Well shaped and coloured fishes are highly regarded everywhere. Moreover, every well kept cichlid will fit this bill.

[3] What a marvelous suggestion! Just imagine spending your whole life always (and I mean ALWAYS) being frightened, upset, excited, and worried. Have these breeders ever heard of fish stress??

[4] Here comes another great moment of the human superior brain! Those fishes (New World cichlids) come from a pale environment with shades and subdued colors. I really wonder whose idea was it to keep those poor “creatures” in a tank with a gravel painted like a disco!

To finish my thoughts: Stay away from this ugliness, respect fishes (and even more Mother Nature) and you won’t regret it! If this fish hasn’t appeared in the wild there must be a very good reason for that. Who are we to bring this “monster” into life?

D r. Ronald Coleman gives a foretaste of what he thinks about these hybrids:

      As I see it, there are certain cultures on this planet that regard animals (or plants) as being here solely for the benefit of humans. They then look at wild animals and deem them as not quite perfect for their uses (which may be practical or aesthetic) and then regard it as a true achievement to convert the wild organism (in their minds “perfecting it”) to how it more ideally suits their vision. This is very clearly the goal of the breeders of the Kiran cichlid and seems to be the same case here. For example, red is “desirable” as is “a blockhead,” etc.

It is difficult or impossible to make these people understand what is wrong with doing this because you would in effect be trying to change their entire religious/cultural/moral view of the world. In fact, some people would regard it as “wrong” to tell them not to do what they are doing, arguing that their view of the world is equally valid to one that respects the diversity of wild organisms. Personally, I disagree with this, but it makes one very vulnerable to being labeled a cultural bigot or cultural imperialist.

I try to explain that if this process continues the world will only be filled with blockheaded, red fish that can’t swim well. Their response would be “And what is wrong with that....?” in contrast to you or I who would regard that as an unacceptable consequence of human activity.

So what can be done? I think there is nothing that can be done directly about the source of these “fish.” They will continue to be made as long as people will buy them. The buying end is where action can be taken because many of the buyers purchase these fish because they are “cute.” Spreading information on what these fish are and the fact that they are not “real” fish is the best course of action; however, the kind of person who goes to a pet store and buys a fish because it is “cute” is also very likely NOT the kind of person to research a fish before buying it. Hence, I suspect these things will continue to be sold.

The parrot cichlid doesn’t worry me too much because it is so obviously a non-fish. I am more concerned about this new thing [“Flower Horn”] you showed to me. It looks more “real” and clearly has elements of various Central Americans, e.g. trimacs and who knows what else. These fishes are variable in the wild and difficult enough to distinguish normally; this will only muddy the waters. The saving grace may be that because these new things will be “exotic and imported” they will hopefully sell for a high price which will mean there will be strong pressure on stores to identify them as these hybrids and not the other way around, i.e. to pass them off as trimaculatus or some other thing. This will likely change with the next generation, i.e. the offspring produced from pairs bought by people. They will quickly discover nobody wants these things and will likely sell them off as “Cichlasoma spp.”

A huge article could be written with our views on this matter. People who regularly visit Malawi Cichlid Homepage or The Cichlid Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa know what we believe in and definitely understand that we could only be against these hybrids. Dr. Ron Coleman, a specialist in fish breeding has already published an excellent article on this matter in his website and we asked for his permission to reprint it here, for your information. Please use this page as a reference whenever you meet somebody thinking of acquiring those “freaks.”

Dr. Ron Coleman’s article reads as follows:

      The creation (deliberate or accidental) of hybrids is an important and controversial issue with cichlid aquarists. Here are my views.

Quite frequently, an aquarist will write me to describe how two of his or her cichlids have spawned, but the surprising thing is that the aquarist thought the fish were two different species. The question typically goes something like this: “My male species 1 just spawned with my female species 2. Have you ever heard of this, and what should I do to raise the kids?” Other variants include “Will I get rich selling these?” and “What would be their proper name?”

These questions raise some interesting and deep philosophical and ethical questions. I will address these issues by trying to answer some of the specific questions.

First, some terms. “Hybrid” refers to the result of mating a male of one species with a female of another species. We often call this “crossing” two species.

1. Have I ever heard of this before?

This is easy to answer. Yes I have. Hybrids are quite common in the cichlid hobby. Almost any Central American cichlid will hybridize with any other. Many of the mbuna (rock dwelling cichlids from Lake Malawi) will hybridize with each other. I have even heard of a mouthbrooder hybridizing with a substrate-spawning cichlid. So, hybridization is not rare.

2. Does this occur in the wild?

This is difficult to support with data, but from my observations in the field in Central America, and from what I have read and heard from fellow cichlid researchers working elsewhere, hybrids are very rare in the wild. Surprisingly, two species of fishes which together in the wild will not hybridize, will do so in an aquarium quite readily.

3. Will I get rich producing hybrids?

No. In fact, you will find that most advanced cichlid hobbyists have an active dislike for hybrids (and to be honest, for the people that produce them).

Every now and then someone produces a new “wonder” fish by hybridizing two species and they may even sell some. In the end, however, this person usually finds themselves shunned by the rest of the cichlid aquarist community and worse yet, the person gets a bad reputation even if they stop producing hybrids: their future actions are always suspect. A bad reputation is an extremely difficult thing to change.

4. What is the proper scientific name of a hybrid?

Hybrids do not get a new scientific name, in other words, you cannot create a new species by hybridization in your fish tank.

If you crossed a Texas cichlid, Herichthys cyanoguttatus with a convict, Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, the most correct name to use would be Hericthys cyanoguttatus × Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, i.e. the two names joined by a ×.

For those who are really up on their biology, what I have said here is only partly true. We now know that many species of plants in the wild, and potentially some animals as well, are actually the result of hybridization in the wild. However, as far as we know at this point, this has not occurred with cichlids in the wild.

5. Why are hybrids so bad?

Hybrids are bad for several reasons at many different levels.

At a philosophical level, many people dislike hybrids because the creation of hybrids is a kind of arrogance on behalf of people, namely some sort of deep-rooted feeling that we can improve upon nature. These people, myself included, feel that with 1500+ species of cichlids in the wild, we don’t need to go creating yet another kind just because we can. Furthermore, the ability to create “designer” organisms has a way of cheapening the beauty and wonder of real organisms.

On a very practical level, hybrids create enormous problems for fellow fish-keepers, problems that may last for a long time and become intractable. Imagine you cross (make a hybrid) between two species of Central American cichlid, e.g. a convict and a Texas cichlid. You know they are hybrids and you keep them in a tank separate from other cichlids. But over time, events cause this tightly controlled situation to get out of hand.

One of the hybrids may jump into another tank (this happens quite often; ask anyone who maintains a large fish room).

You might sell or give away some of the hybrids and the recipient may not know or remember that the fish is in fact a hybrid. People often bring fish back to pet stores or sell them at auctions and so the hybrid nature of the fish can easily get lost along the way.

The first generation of hybrids (called F1 hybrids) are often easy to spot; they look like a mixture of the two parent species. If two of these F1 hybrids go on to mate, or if one of them is mated to either of the parent species, the offspring (F2 hybrids) create the real problems. Why? Because F2 individuals may look like almost anything in between the two parent species, up to and including looking like either of the parent species. This is a disaster waiting to happen because it means that now you have a fish that looks like a certain species but doesn’t have all the right genes for that species.

Now imagine what happens when these offspring grow up and get back into the mainstream of the hobby. A person (potentially you) buys what looks like a convict cichlid at your local pet store. You are unaware that the fish is actually an F2 convict × Texas cross brought in a week ago by someone else. The person who sold the fish to the store forgot to mention that point (we will assume they forgot accidentally, but since most reputable pet stores will not knowingly carry hybrids, some people “forget” to mention that the fish are hybrids since they look like convicts anyway).

Now you put your new convict in with your other convict and for some strange reason, they never reproduce successfully. Or they do reproduce and the kids look kind of strange. Now you have a bunch more hybrids that you have to deal with.

6. Dealing with hybrids

The solution here is simple. Destroy them immediately. If you have a difficult time killing a bunch of hybrid eggs, imagine how difficult it will be for you to kill them when they are cute little fry or even young adults. This is a responsibility you take on when you keep fish and you should take it seriously.

Under absolutely no circumstances should you pass hybrids to someone else unless they are to be used as feeder fish.

7. How can I avoid getting hybrids?

Probably the best way to avoid getting hybrids in the first place is to purchase your fish from a reputable dealer and avoid buying fish from a tank labelled “Mixed African Cichlids.” The latter is usually a telltale sign that the dealer doesn’t know what the fish actually are.


Avoid hybrids.

I find it incredibly reassuring that cichlid hobbyists have taken and do continue to take such a strong stance against hybrids. This is not the case in many other animal-related fields. Because of this attitude amongst cichlid keepers, you can go into a pet store in most any part of the world and be reasonably assured that the cichlid you are buying and bringing home is in fact a representative of a real cichlid species. That is truly remarkable.

D r. Michael Oliver adds the following:

      All the other contributors have already expressed most of the same opinions and arguments that I would make. Let me add only a few additional points.
  1. Another manifestation of the urge to “improve” on the products of billions of years of evolution is the pratice of injecting glassfish and glass catfish with fluorescent dyes to make “painted glassfish.” These “decorations” often live only a few months; long enough to sell them to unsuspecting, unsophisticated buyers. Not hybrids, but from the same misguided mindset!
  2. A less extreme form of artificial hybrid than the “Blood Parrot” is a much larger problem in relation to Lake Malawi cichlids — namely, the simple hybrid carelessly produced because an aquarist keeps a male cichlid without appropriate conspecific females, and it manages to interbreed with a female of something else. As Ron noted about neotropical cichlids, so too in Lake Malawi; the actual species are hard enough to distinguish and characterize, without producing intermediates! I fully agree that hybrid cichlids should be destroyed, or, at very least, should never be sold, given away, traded, or allowed to breed.
  3. One artifical hybrid Malawi cichlid that is currently (alas!) becoming widespread in the hobby is the “Aulonocara Marmalade Cat,” “Aulonocara ‘bicolor’,” or “OB peacock.” While striking in appearance, these are, I suspect, never found in the wild. They appear to be a hybrid between some anonymous “peacock” (of the “Hap” flock) and a member of the Mbuna flock; only species of the latter flock ever express “OB” genes in nature.
  4. I want to reiterate a point made by the other authors here. Labeotropheus trewavasae ‘Marmalade Cat’ male, photo © by M.K. Oliver Cichlids probably outnumber gobies as the largest, most diverse of all vertebrate animal families. There are something like 1500 different species of cichlids, including such breathtaking, naturally occurring beauties as the rare and wonderful Labeotropheus trewavasae at right, a so-called “marmalade cat” male, which shows the marbled blotching of “OB” genes usually only expressed in females. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about London: When a person is tired of natural cichlid diversity, he is tired of life (and should get one!), for there is in the Cichlidae all the variety that life can afford.
  5. A final observation: This article concentrates chiefly on intentionally selected, heavily promoted, hybrids between fishes of different species or genera; hybrids whose creators often seek to exaggerate some natural feature of a cichlid to grotesque proportions. We have to admit that such an enterprise is nothing new, and is accepted and admired in some cultures. Bizarrely selected goldfish are an ancient tradition in China; think of such monstrosities as the “celestial telescope goldfish,” with huge, bloated, upwardly turned eyes that are prone to injury as the hapless fish swims into obstacles. Think of certain dog breeds, selected for centuries in Asia and Europe to have deformed heads with squashed-in muzzles; dogs of these breeds routinely suffer from chronic respiratory problems. No, arrogance in shaping living creatures to suit human whim and greed is nothing new. This species of conceit is skewered by a (now-defunct) Web page purporting to sell kittens grotesquely shaped by confinement in glass bottles. Although horrifying, this idea appears, to many people, only slightly more unlikely than the awful things actually done to misshape living animals. Many people, therefore, don’t realize that the “bonsai kittens” are a hoax designed to satirize precisely this attitude of distorting living creatures and turning them into a commodity. I have little doubt that some idiot is hard at work right now on introducing a gene for bioluminescence into cichlids and is dreaming of making a fortune selling “Living Night-Lights.”
    Addendum 1 Dec 2003: Sad to say, my June 2001 prediction of the preceding sentence has already come true — with a slight difference. The jellyfish bioluminescence gene was inserted, not into a cichlid, but into the zebrafish (Danio rerio) by a researcher in Singapore. According to the journal Nature (vol. 426, p. 372, 27 Nov 2003), these genetically engineered fish are to be
    sold as pets by a company called GloFish, starting as early as 5 January 2004. (Imagine trying to sleep when you and your tankmates glow in the dark, and you cannot close your eyes!)
    Note added 4 March 2004: I have been gently corrected by Lynn Furick, who informs me that GloFish " not actually glow in the dark. In normal light, they are only slightly different from their natural counterparts; the glow can be seen only when the fish is displayed under a black light" (i.e., ultraviolet). Thank you, Lynn! — M. K. Oliver

Please also look at Ron Coleman’s page on another well-known hybrid, the parrot cichlids.

T his article is a joint effort of Dr. Ron Coleman (Cichlid Research Home Page), Dr. Michael K. Oliver (The Cichlid Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa), and the Authors of Malawi Cichlid Homepage to inform people about the true story behind those “freaks.” It is also meant to draw attention to the fact that if nobody would buy them, those breeders would never produce them. It is then your duty to spread this article to as many people as possible. Because, in the end, the only rational answer to the question “Who needs another Hybrid?” is “Nobody!”  


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Last Update: 30 July 2015
Web Author: M. K. Oliver, Ph.D.
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