Wayne Leibel, 2003
Cichlid Room Companion

Marbled Pike Cichlid, Crenicichla marmorata Pellegrin 1904, The Marbled Pike Cichlid

By , 1997. image

Classification: Species overview, South America.

" Life history, taxonomy and aquarium keeping of Crenicichla marmorata Pellegrin 1904 "

(This article was originally published in Cichlid News Magazine; april 1992; Aquatic Promotions Vol. 1 No. 2. pp. 6-8. It is here reproduced with the permission of author Wayne S. Leibel).
Crenicichla marmorata female Crenicichla marmorata female in aquarium. Fish and Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.

For years pike cichlids of the genus Crenicichla have been ignored, even avoided, by all but the fringes of the cichlid hobby. For those with big tanks and a taste for goldfish-gulpers, pike cichlids are just the thing. But forget pikes in any but the rowdiest of tanks, and certainly no one would waste the time, space and food bill on spawning these fishes. For one thing, what would you do with all the offspring? Owing to their lack of popularity, information about pike cichlids and decent color photos are rare in the literature. I must confess to dabbling with these fishes sporadically in the past. I'd buy a bunch of inexpensive "who-zats" and raise them up, only to bring them to auction or my local retailer before they matured and spawned. So I never really learned much about them, but always thought that pike cichlids would be my next serious stop after I tired of Geophagus.

That time is now at hand. With the appearance of Stawikowski and Werner's book (1988) in this country, American cichlid hobbyists got their first look at the splendor and diversity that is the genus Crenicichla. The authors devote 53 of 281 pages to pike cichlids alone! I regret that I can't read German, but the 50+ photos speak for themselves: pike cichlids are the new wave of the Neotropical future! Activities of exporters and importers bear this out. This year (1992) has seen the influx of a large number of species, many from the Rio Tocatins- Santarem area (e.g., C. compressiceps, C. cametana, and C. astroblepa). To be sure, many of these species are extremely belligerent eating machines, but many compensate for this drawback with sheer beauty and interesting behavior. One recent import (and definitely a beautiful one) is the marbled pike cichlid, Crenicichla marmorata.

Nomenclatural History

Crenicichla marmorata was first described by Pellegrin in 1904 as a subspecies of C. brasiliensis. In fact, Pellegrin in the same work described several "variants" of C. brasiliensis, many of which (including C. strigata, C. vittata, C. lenticulata, C. cincta, C. lugubris, and C. johanna) have since been promoted to full specific rank. Crenicichla brasiliensis is correctly applied only to a member of the C. lepidota group and is restricted in distribution to northeastern Brazil (Kullander, 1982). Pellegrin (1905) later elevated C. marmorata to full specific rank. However, the description was based on a single ancient specimen whose locality was not known. Ploeg (1987) redescribed C. marmorata from material taken from the Rio Trombetas in Brazil in 1964. The description is accompanied by photos, including one taken from Axelrod's Atlas (1985:345) which had been misidentified as "Batrachops sp." The pictures show a series of nine vertical bars overlain by a series of irregularly shaped and placed blotches which give the fish a "marbled" appearance, hence the name marmorata (Greek for "marbled").

In the Aquarium

Crenicichla marmorata pair A breeding pair of Crenicichla marmorata. Though similar in color, the male is usually larger than the female. Fish and Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.

A more dramatic color presentation of this fish is portrayed in Konings' Cichlids Yearbook (1991:84 and back cover). One look, and I knew I had to have this fish! The fact that the figure legend gave Santarem (Rio Tapajos) as the origin of the species gave me hope of procuring them, since Santarem is the source of many of the rare Rio Tocatins cichlids (e.g., Biotodoma sp. "redfin", Retroculus lapidifer, Crenicichla compressiceps) that have made their way into the hobby of late. In November of 1991, Ben Rosler in Irvington, New Jersey called to tell me he was expecting C. marmorata. Needless to say I got there as soon as they arrived. The entire shipment consisted of five individuals, ranging in size from 7-12 inches. I chose one obvious female - an 8-inch fish with a distinct white submarginal dorsal band - and the largest individual, a presumed male

The "pair" was housed in a four- foot 75-gallon tank with a dozen Geophagus proximus and an assortment of catfish. The pikes spent the first week peacefully hanging out in the tangle of bogwood that occupied the right half of the tank. I fed goldfish, which the pikes - and surprisingly the eartheaters, too - wolfed down. I dislike feeding live fish to predators, but I was determined to get the pikes in the best of shape before weaning them to dried and frozen foods. By week's end, the 12-inch male began chasing everything in the tank, including his prospective consort - so it was back to the drawing board.

Or rather, the wholesaler. The remaining three fish were still available (and expensive given the 5- pack shipment), so I took them all. I moved the eartheaters out and put all five pikes together. You can probably guess the outcome if you've ever kept pikes before: mayhem! The large male kept all four other fish up in the corners - it's a good thing I didn't have six! Clearly, this was not a match made in heaven, so the large male was banished to the premier fish boutique in the New Jersey area to be sold as a rare fish. After his removal, two of the fish, including the original presumed female, began hanging out together - peacefully. The other two fish continued to imitate corner molding. I decided to try the four of them in a 6-foot 150-gallon tank. The two "vanquished" still hugged the corners despite the doubled volume, expanded area, and a second tangle of bogwood at the other end of the tank, so they too were removed. I tried a number of other large cichlids (e.g., a 7-inch Heros severus), but the pikes would tolerate no other save a fleet of 7-inch Orinocodoras catfish which spent their daylight hours crammed into the gnarled bogwood. Great use of space! But, adopting a "don't fix it if it ain't broke" philosophy, I deferred moving them to a smaller tank and possibly rupturing the pair bond. I had already sold the remaining individuals - more guts than sense! Moreover, the catfish would eat those scale-filled scats the pikes' produced prodigiously, given the numbers of goldfish they were going through by now. The tank is maintained at 78°F. with a wet-dry filter, an Aquatronics 500 power filter, and two Tetra double brillant sponge filters providing the filtration. The water is nearly neutral in pH with very low hardness. I try to do a 30- 40% water change every two weeks.

A few random thoughts on keeping pikes. In terms of compatibility, try only fish of the same size; big male/ small female pair is a mistake, as is a group of pikes of different sizes. My pair are within one-half inch of each other in size, and I've experienced similar success with other pike species. Pieces of PVC piping of suitable diameter (2-inch, in this case) cut to 6- 8 inch lengths make great shelters for these fishes. In fact, the only way of housing large numbers of many pike species is to provide each fish with at least one pipe. Finally, adult pikes can be weaned off live fish and onto other foods, but it takes some patience and resolve. For fish six inches or larger, you may be well advised to fatten them up on goldfish and rosy-red minnows before trying to convert them. I find the next step is freshly-killed "prey" fishes; if your pikes learn to take these (thrown one at a time into the water), then you should be able to move them onto krill. Smaller pikes will take frozen foods (bloodworms, brine shrimp) almost immediately and can then be switched to krill and even pelleted foods. On the whole, small pikes (2-4 inches) are much easier to handle; they are even somewhat social at that age.

Back to C. marmorata. After nearly two months of endless goldfish, the female pike began developing the cherry-red belly that is typical of most sexually-dimorphic pike species, both large and dwarf. Digging under the huge pieces of driftwood laid the glass bottom bare. For his part, the male began his courtship with a behavior I have seen in the basketmouth cichlid, Acaronia nassa, which I have dubbed "head bashing." The male swims toward the female from behind in short erratic bursts and stops just short of her face, very nearly bashing her. The female responded much like a West African kribensis (Pelvicachromis pulcher); she stuck out her cherry-red belly and - either head-up or head-down - did a vertical dance for him. This exchange continued for nearly a week.

Crenicichla marmorata Eggs attached to bogwood were vigorously guarded by the female. Fish and Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.
Crenicichla marmorata pair Female Crenicichla marmorata with swarming brood, a first in the United States. Fish and Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.
The proud parents with their free-swimming fry. Fish and Photo by Wayne S. Leibel

The day after a midnight water change, I returned from work to a cluster of 500-700 beige eggs attached to the walls of a large natural crevice in one piece of bogwood. Crenicichla marmorata is a cave-spawner like a number of other pikes that have been spawned! The eggs were attached by filamentous stalks (just as in kribs) and would sway as the female, positioned in the crevice, fanned them. The male provided perimeter defense, though the catfish were inactive. I didn't know what to do. If I tried to remove the catfish, this would certainly disturb the pair since it would entail removing most of the bogwood. I decided to leave the light on that night and let the pair defend. The next morning, the eggs were still there! Phew! That night, I resolved to remove the catfish. Yes, I did remove the bogwood; yes, the pair did get jumpy; yes, one of the catfish swam into the egg-laden crevice and, despite vicious attacks from the parents, neither the pikes nor I could dislodge it. Luckily, it didn't feast on the eggs. I replaced the bogwood and crossed my fingers; the parents were still guarding when I retired that night, and the eggs were intact the next morning.

It is here that the happy story ends. I don't know whether it was the disturbance caused by removing the catfish, by my incessant flash pictures, or simply because the eggs were infertile, but when I returned from work that night, about half the eggs were gone. Had I missed a catfish? Were the eggs hatching on schedule 48 hours post-spawn and falling into the pit below? I just didn't know. I'd had no experience with pikes, and C. marmorata had not yet been spawned in captivity. Two hours later, the remainder of the eggs were gone, and the female had left her "cave" and was soliciting for goldfish. What had happened? My best guess is that the male, still young at eight inches (this species reportedly reaches 30 cm in standard length - that's 12 inches without the tail!), was "shooting blanks." I'm hopeful that the pair will spawn again, and that this time the eggs will he fertile.

I have several reasons for hoping this. The obvious one - it would be quite an achievement financially and otherwise - is not the most compelling. Crenicichla marmorata is a member of the strigata-complex, a group of pike cichlids which share a striped juvenile phase. You've no doubt seen more common members of this group; juveniles have a brown (or red or orange) stripe extending posteriorly from the eye, culminating in a spot at the base of the caudal fin (Warzel, 1991). When they mature, members of the group lose the stripe and become nearly unmarked along their bodies. The group includes C. lugubris, C. marmorata, C. strigata, C. lenticulata, C. johanna, and a number of undescribed forms, such as the spectacular "orange pike" (called the "French fry pike" in Europe) from the Rio Tocatins, which likewise loses the spectacular orange striping as it grows. It would be informative to document the markings of juvenile C. marmorata and photograph the metamorphosis to adult coloration.

Secondly, Warzel (1991) writes that the individual marbled pattern is quite variable, not only geographically, but among individuals in a single population. My limited experience with the initial shipment of five individuals and a second shipment of five more tends to support these observations, but I'd love to raise a few hundred individuals! (Yeah, right! I'd need a swimming pool.) In any event, I am hopeful that I will get the opportunity to do this upon the occasion of a successful spawning. And if I do, I will happily share the good news with you. For the meantime, think pike! There are plenty of interesting and beautiful species available for all of us to learn from.

Note added in proof: Exactly one month after the demise of their first brood, my C. marmorata pair spawned again, coincident with a major snow storm/low pressure system over Pennsylvania. Once again, they pasted in excess of 500 eggs on the same vertical piece of bogwood. With no catfish in the tank, the eggs were undisturbed; the light/dark cycle was uninterrupted. The eggs were conspicuously embryonated after 48 hrs and hatched five days post-spawn at 78°F. The female stashed the youngsters in a hole in the driftwood, where they wriggled for seven days before becoming free-swimming. Roughly half the spawn was viable. Given the extended period of yolk absorption, the sheer quantity of yolk, and the resultant large fry size, the fry were able to eat newly-hatched brine shrimp immediately. I'm looking forward to rearing the fry and spreading them amongst cichlid enthusiasts across the country!

References (8):


Leibel, Wayne. (Dec 21, 1997). "Marbled Pike Cichlid, Crenicichla marmorata Pellegrin 1904, The Marbled Pike Cichlid". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Apr 16, 2024, from: