This little cichlid has several common names. Ramirez’ dwarf cichlid and butterfly dwarf cichlid are older names that have been largely replaced by the shorter, though less elegant, Ram. It is one of the most delightful and popular of freshwater fishes. Unfortunately it’s also one of the most abused and it has a deserved reputation for fragility.
This species is not for beginners, demanding the highest attention to water quality, a varied diet, and warmer than usual water. Give it the correct environment however, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most beautiful fish available to the freshwater hobbyist.
First described in 1948 by Myers & Harry, for many years the Ram (named after Sr. Manuel Vicente Ramirez, the Venezuelan collector), was placed in the genus Apistogramma. It answered briefly to Papiliochromis ramirezi (sometimes misspelled as papilochromis) before being given its present title. Note that it’s mikrogeophagus and not microgeophagus.
The generic name means small earth-eater and refers to its close relationship with its larger cousins, the geophagine (earth eating) cichlids of South America.
There is currently only one other species in the genus, Mikrogeophagus altispinosus, the Bolivian ram. A larger, more robust species which is also frequently offered for sale and is probably more suited to most community setups.
Distribution & Availability
The Ram is a South American dwarf cichlid and can be found in the flooded plains (llanos) along the Orinoco River basin of Venezuela and Colombia. Commercially bred M. ramirezi are frequently offered for sale and are available in most shops throughout the year. Sadly, as is often the case, breeders have produced several variants, including gold, long-finned, balloon and more recently – “electric blue”. None of these can match the true wild form for beauty and responsible fish-keepers should avoid them.
The fish is rather deep bodied and compact. Healthy individuals should be positively plump and nicely rounded. A large fish would be around 6cm including the tail. Most are much less than that. The basic body colour is yellow with 6 or 7 vertical dark bars, one of which runs through its bright red eye. Depending on mood these bars may be distinct or almost invisible. The second bar extends up onto the front of the dorsal fin and the third bar is overlaid by a large black blotch. Small blue iridescent spots cover the rear half of the fish and the unpaired fins. Lines of the same colour can be seen on the mouth and head area. Some individuals have elongated first and second dorsal fin rays and the ventral fins have a line of iridescent blue also.
Males – rather larger than the female but otherwise similar. In mature fish, the rear of the dorsal fin comes to a distinct point. The black spot on the flanks is generally free from blue spots.
Females – smaller than males and may show a pink blush on its belly. The black spot on its sides may be overlaid slightly with a few blue spots.
This is not an easy fish to care for, despite being sold as a general community fish. It requires frequent partial water changes and should not be kept with large, fast-moving fish such as barbs. One pair per tank only unless it is 4ft or more with plenty hiding places. These fish inhabit the bottom portion of the tank.
- Tank size: 60cm minimum
- Decoration: hiding places constructed from slate, bogwood and plants. A sand substrate will allow for sand sifting
- Temperature: 26 – 30oC
- pH: slightly acidic, 5 – 7
- Hardness: on the soft side, 2 – 10 dH
Feed a variety of flake and frozen food. Relishes live food such as daphnia and grindal worms. Wild fish may take some time to adjust but will eventually take flake.
Given the right conditions, these fish will breed fairly readily, even in a community tank. For best results condition on live and frozen foods and give them their own 60cm tank. Decorate the tank with wood and plants, make sure there are plenty hiding places. Provide a flat stone such as a slate and position this behind some plants for privacy.
Although quite easy to spawn, hatching and raising fry is another thing altogether. Eggs are commonly infertile or will fungus and are eaten by the parents. Some pairs will eventually hatch out some fry but others will never manage. Try lowering the water hardness to increase fertility rates and if all else fails, remove the eggs (they are usually on a stone which makes this easy) and hatch then out in a separate tank with enough methylene blue to colour the water and an air stone for water movement and extra oxygen.
Fry hatch out in 2 or 3 days and spend the next 5 days or so wriggling and do not need fed. When they are free swimming, start them on infusoria and microworm. Newly hatched brine shrimp can be fed after another 2 or 3 days. Growth is leisurely to begin with but picks up after a couple of months. Juveniles should be ready to move on at around 6 months and they will start breeding in their growing out tanks at this age.
Many of the specimens offered for sale in the shops are of poor quality and should be avoided. A healthy Ram will be bright and alert. It should carry its fins erect and will often be sparring with its tank mates. Don’t buy fish that are thin or are breathing heavily.
Rams are prone to a disease that is similar to, or may even be, hole in the head disease. Look out for small pits or open wounds around the eyes and head. The cause of this ailment isn’t known for certain and there is no cure.
If possible, obtain your fish from a local breeder.
USA Show standards
- Size: 5.5cm
- Breeding category: C
- Show class: DC
M. ramirezi is a stunning fish when the conditions are right and makes a good breeding project for the intermediate hobbyist. Pick your stock carefully to avoid disappointment.
- Baensch, H. A., Riehl, R.(1982): Aquarium Atlas
- Fishbase species summary
- Kullander, S.O., 1998. A phylogeny and classification of the South American Cichlidae (Teleostei: Perciformes).. p. 461-498. In: L.R. Malabarba, R.E. Reis, R.P. Vari, Z.M. Lucena and C.A.S. Lucena (eds.) Phylogeny and classification of neotropical fishes. Porto Alegre, Edipucrs. 603 p.