Cichlids from the genus Geophagus are well known for their behavior of looking for food at the sandy bottom of their tank or habitat. These cichlids take a mouthful of sand and sift it in their mouths to find morsels to eat. This behavior has given them the popular name “Eartheater.”

Text and photos by Angel Ampil

Among the Eartheaters, the Geophagus surinamensis has established itself as a favorite among Filipino fishkeepers. For one thing, it is a very colorful fish. It generally has a base body color of grey to bronze gold. Rows of red scales that start from behind the operculum to the tail form stripes; hence, they are also called the “Red Stripe Eartheater” in some countries.

Between these red stripes are glittering scales in hues of aqua-green. Sometimes a black spot may be observed in the upper third of the body. The fins and tails are generally red with streaks and spots of aqua-green hues. The rays of the dorsal fin boast red streaks, which are very impressive when the fish extends its fins. Most impressive are the ventral fins, which have elongated filaments at the tip. This makes the fish look very graceful as the filaments trail behind it when it is swimming. The dorsal, anal, and tail fins also end in filaments, but these are much shorter.

G. surinamensis also grows to a respectable size of 12 inches. Because of its tall body, this fish looks much bigger than other fish of the same length. Despite its big size, it is generally a gentle giant that, of course, should be considered within the context of cichlid aggression. While a school of G. surinamensis may bicker, flare, nip, and jab at each other, no one gets seriously injured. They are indeed one of the good-mannered cichlids, which is another reason to like them.

First described by the German medical doctor and naturalist who generally is considered one of the most important ichthyologists of the 18th century, Marcus Elieser Bloch, in 1791, its scientific name suggests the G. surinamensis hails from Suriname in the Saramacca, Marowijne, and Suriname Rivers. Their natural habitat extends to French Guiana.

The G. surinamensis take a mouthful of sand and sift the sand in their mouths to find morsels to eat. This behavior has given them the popular name “Eartheaters.”

The G. surinamensis is quite tolerant of different water parameters so long as the extremes are avoided. They prefer water that is acidic to alkaline within the pH range of 6.0 to 8.0. They also do well in water hardness of soft to medium with a dH range of 5 to 19. As for the temperature range our tropical climate is perfect for them and they do well within the range of 24°C to 30°C (77°F to 86°F). These water parameters are quite easy to attain, so Filipino fish-keepers are quite successful not just in keeping, but also in breeding, them. I have known many friends who have bred the G. surinamensis at their leisure. The ease in keeping and probable breeding, I believe, are further reasons to like them.

There is clear sexual dimorphism between the two genders. Males are easily distinguishable by their long fin extensions or filaments on their ventral, dorsal, anal, and caudal fins. While the females may also have these, the filaments are not as pronounced as with the males.

Interestingly, once a pair mates, the bond is rather strong and they will not leave each other. Eggs are generally laid on a smooth surface on the substrate. This could be a piece of rock, broken pottery, or even the glass bottom. Once the female lays the eggs, the male follows to fertilize the eggs. After this ritual, one or both parents will pick up the eggs from the surface and brood these in their mouths. After about three days, the fry will hatch. At this point, everything becomes more exciting.

G. surinamensis pairs are very good parents. Their parental instincts tell them to safeguard their fry, and this is such a powerful instinct that when danger is near, the fry swim back into the mouths of their parents. This is just like watching an underwater documentary, except that you can witness this live in the comforts of your home!

Another factor that makes G. surinamensis attractive to fish-keepers is the price. This is not an expensive fish to buy. While it is also not the cheapest fish you will find in a fish store, the price is well affordable. But for an exciting and exotic cichlid, a little investment is well worth it.

Despite its big size, G. surinamensis is generally a gentle giant; that, of course should be considered within the context of cichlid aggression.

A New Look for an Old Favorite

With many favorable qualities, the G. surinamensis has become quite a popular cichlid among Filipino fish hobbyists. Recently however, I saw a variant that, in my opinion, makes it even more attractive.

This is the Short Body G. surinamensis. Ironically, I am personally a purist when it comes to cichlids. I prefer keeping cichlids in their wild and natural form. True, the Short Body G. surinamensis is indeed a big digression from the normal G. surinamensis. Selective breeding under captive conditions have made this variant shorter and rounder than the normal G. surinamensis. However, I found this variant pretty enough to be placed in my own tank.

I would not really know how the Filipino fish-keeping market will take to the Short Body G. surinamensis. Some fish-keepers frown on short body fish, claiming these are not natural, developed only to introduce new varieties for their breeders to make money. Those who object to short body fish are quite vocal, to the extent that some disgruntled fish-keepers term these fish “Frankenfishes.”

But for some fish-keepers who consider these oddballs unique and rare, the G. surinamensis are viewed as highly collectible fish. I guess the fish-keepers’ opinions will be varied, and they all have valid reasons why they like or do not like short body fishes. The bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is that here is a fish that I found right in front to me.

I was beholden by its beauty and without overthinking the matter, I decided to acquire a few. I have had them for about a month now and am quite happy having them in my own tank. I have more exotic and highly collectible fish at home, but the Short Body G. surinamensis are just as exciting to keep.

Except for the short body (and a price that is about ten times more expensive), everything about the Short Body G. surinamensis is like any normal G. surinamensis. It is still the same fish we all loved through the years, albeit with a different look.

This story appeared in Animal Scene’s April 2017 issue.