Jeff Rapps, 2000
Cichlid Room Companion

Husbandry Of Caquetaia umbrifera, The Unsung King Of New World Cichlids

By , 2000. image

Classification: Captive maintenance, Central and North America.

Caquetaia umbrifera

Caquetaia umbrifera Meek and Hildebrand 1913, a very large and beautiful New World cichlid, is found from the Rio Tuira basin along the Pacific slope of Panama to the Rio Magdelana basin on the Atlantic slope of Colombia (Conkel, 1993). In Colombia the species is known as either mojarra negra ("black cichlid") or mojarra anzuelera ("blue cichlid"). In its natural habitat C. umbrifera (trade names = "bluespeckled cichlid" or "umbie") is an openwater piscivore.

To the best of my knowledge, this bruiser (which can reach lengths of 24" in the aquarium) made its debut in the American hobby back in 1975. Wild-caught juveniles were recognized as contaminants among groups of redhump eartheaters (Geoophagus steindachneri) by Tom DePiro (a fellow fan of large Heroine spp.) in the northeastern U.S. Meanwhile in the Midwest, James Langhammer of the Belle Isle Aquarium (Detroit, Michigan) discovered a few umbies in a wholesaler's tank of imported Aeguidens metae. Both of these discoveries occurred among fishes imported from Colombia. At the time, a great deal of controversy surrounded the appearance of this apparently newly-discovered species, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on some!

Males of C. umbrifera reach lengths of 24" total length (T.L.); some old and well-maintained aquarium specimens may grow even larger. The largest female I have kept grew to 14" T.L., making the umbie one of the largest Neotropical cichlids. Only Parachromis dovii and certain Cichla spp. of South America attain greater size.

Adult umbies of both sexes have characteristic metallic-blue freckling on the operculum, which first appears in juveniles at ca. 2" T.L. In adult males the ground color is copper with a metallic blue spot in the middle of each scale. The throat and nape are reddish-brown; a bright red edging runs along the outer margin of the dorsal fin. A striking reticulated pattern of turquoise and bronze is seen on the dorsal, caudal, ventral, and anal fins. In males, the trailing edges of the dorsal and anal fins reach beyond the caudal fin, developing extended, multi branched filaments. A longitudinal black stripe runs posteriad from the eye, terminating in a black spot on the caudal peduncle. The stripe occurs in juveniles, as well as in non-breeding adult females; it can also reappear in breeding adults that are stressed or frightened. The ground color of an adult female is greenish-grey with less blue spangling on the body and fins. While spawning or guarding young however, her entire body becomes yellow green or lemon yellow. The anterior portion of her red-trimmed dorsal fin turns a sharply-contrasting black, as do the distal parts of the ventral and anal fins. The black spot on the caudal peduncle remains very dark, while a black, triangular blotch develops directly beneath the eye. As mentioned above, juveniles possess the horizontal black stripe with two black spots developed along its axis, the first located slightly posterior of mid-flank and the second at the base of the caudal peduncle. A rather drab grey-green is the ground color exhibited by juveniles.

In the aquarium, juvenile umbis can be raised successfully with other similarly-sized Cichlasoma. Young fish are a bit shy, often hovering in or near caves or other "relief" placed in the tank. However they are easily lured from such hiding places by the introduction of food. As they grow larger, this retiring nature is replaced by an outgoing tendency to be the boldest fish in the aquarium. I have read reports of adult umbies as dominating, antagonistic bullies, leaving tankmates scaled and finless, situations that I can understand when an adult pair decides to spawn in the confines of a cichlid community aquarium. My experiences with nonbreeding, single adults suggest that while umbies can cohabitate with similarly large, aggressive Central American cichlids, I have unfortunately on occasion had specimens of C. umbrifera "murdered" by tankmates in mixed company.

Even as juveniles, umbies show a marked dislike for each other, so be sure to provide as large a tank as possible when attempting to raise conspecifics together. A 50-gal tank packed with hiding places constitutes the minimum size needed to raise this species. As the fish approach adult size, tanks of 75-100 gallons are required to house a pair and subsequent spawns. Be sure to monitor the youngsters closely, as some are bound to wind up cowering in corners of the tank with torn fins and missing scales. These "beaten" individuals may need to be removed and nursed back to health in a hospital tank. Attempts to return these fish to the original tank after sufficient healing time usually proves futile (even if you rearrange the tank decor). It is a wise idea to keep these individuals around, however, because as the umbies in the original tank grow and spar, you may not be able to avoid sudden fatalities. Ultimately, you may need the previously beaten fish as breeders. By the time the fish are 3.5-4" T.L., you should be able to distinguish sexes. Males begin to develop more blue spangling on the body and operculum, and the dorsal and anal fins will be slightly longer than those of the females. Males also appear a bit more elongated in shape when compared to the stockier females. Males should also have grown larger than females of the same age.

If you're lucky, pair-bonding may occur between the largest male and his female of choice. You may witness two fish spending time together, patrolling a commonly-defended area of the tank. During pair formation the male displays to his consort, when not occupied with territorial defense. If she returns his displays rather than trying to escape his attentions, you can be fairly confident that pair-bonding is occurring. Once a pair is established, other conspecifics should be removed from the tank for their own good. Unfortunately a pair bond can quickly erode upon the removal of tank-mates, and the use of dither fish with a pair of umbies is pretty much a cruel joke. Therefore, unless your tank is gigantic (300+ gallons), I recommend the following guidelines for maintaining an isolated pair of adult C. umbrifera.

Size differences between a male and female in a pair can be used to the aquarist's advantage. Installation of an incomplete divider is the safest and most effective method to house and spawn umbie pairs. Briefly, you will need to cut two or more openings from a plastic egg crate divider which are large enough to allow the female free passage, yet small enough to exclude the male. I recommend providing more than one hole as potential escape routes for the female, should the male's overtures become too boisterous. Also, a warning: be sure to secure the divider securely between the walls of your aquarium, as these fish will grow quite large and powerful. I prefer to cut the divider slightly larger than the actual dimensions of the tank. As a result, the divider must be placed at a slight diagonal angle between the tank walls. You can then use suction cups like those used to secure heaters and filter tubes to hold the divider in position. In addition to the suction cups, large, heavy objects such as rocks can be placed on each side of the divider to further anchor it. Of course, you may choose to glue the divider in place as well. Either way, there is a sense of security in knowing that you will not walk into your fishroom one day to find that you've raised a pair of fish for a year or more, but neglected to provide adequate refuge for your "former" female!

Caquetaia umbrifera Left: An adult female Caquetaia umbrifera, note that holes in the divider allow passage by the female but not by the larger male. Right: Secondary sexual characteristics in C. umbrifera include a slight nuchal hump, larger size, brighter markings, and extended fin filaments in the male. Photos by Jeff Rapps.

Caquetaia umbrifera is easily fed, readily accepting a variety of floating pellets, freeze-dried krill, and earthworms. In the past I occasionally treated them to live foods (feeder fish or crayfish) which they used to enjoy tearing into. However these types of foods can be detrimental to the breeders by possibly introducing unwanted parasites.

Clean water is essential for good health. Frequent, massive water changes are necessary for large cichlids like umbies; pH and hardness levels are not crucial as long as extremes are avoided. Spawning can begin once fish reach ages of 10-14 months, by which time the female should measure 4-6" T.L., while the male may be 6-8" T.L. Maintenance temperatures of 80°F can be raised to 82-84°F to stimulate reproductive activity. As spawning approaches, the female spends more time on the male's side of the tank; pre-spawning behavior includes headshaking, gill and fin flaring (especially by the male), tail-slapping, and (eventually) cleaning of a spawning site. After several years of cohabitation, prespawning activities in my original pair of umbies are brief with the female quickly assuming the yellow "spawning/fry defense" color pattern described earlier. I have provided my breeders with 12" lengths of heavy ceramic tubing on each side of the divider, the purpose of which is threefold: 1) each tube provides a refuge for the female; 2) placement of the tubes further stabilizes the divider; and 3) the tube on the male's side of the tank serves as a spawning site. I thought the pair would spawn inside the tube, but the female has always chosen to lay eggs on the outer wall.

Once the pair successfully spawns, vigilant care of the eggs and fry is a delight to observe. The female remains in close proximity to the egg plaque most of the time, while the male patrols the peripheral areas of the tank. Since the pair resides alone in the breeding tank, defense of the fry is directed toward fish in neighboring tanks in addition to any person, dog, cat, or other animate object within their sight! Beware, as these fish, when guarding young, will even bite the hand that feeds them. Though the female is especially pugnacious, I find that if I need to change water or move something inside the tank when eggs or fry are present, the parents will eventually back off until the commotion ceases.

At 82°F, eggs hatch in about 72 hours. The female then chews the wrigglers free of their egg shells and transfers them to a pre-dug pit. Over the next several days, wrigglers can be expected to be moved a few more times, until they become freeswimming on the sixth or seventh day postspawning. If you are using an external power filter, you will need to protect the fry from being sucked into the filter as they forage about the tank. I cut a deep channel into a sponge that originally served as an insert for small- to medium- sized filters which hang on the back of a tank. With a rubber band or two, I secure the sponge over the intake of the canister filter. The sponge prevents fry from being sucked into the canister filter, while also acting as a prefilter to the external filter. The sponge should be rinsed often to maintain adequate water flow, as it can become clogged once you begin feeding the fry. Baby umbies will immediately accept any food suitable for cichlid fry. Baby brine shrimp, finely-crushed flakes, and powdered pellets provide my fry with their initial meals. When changing water in the tank with the fry, (I recommend 30-40% twice weekly), using a rubber band to secure a fine mesh net over the cleaning tube prevents the fry from being siphoned out of the tank.

Caquetaia umbrifera The less brightly colored female handles most of the care of the eggs. Fish and Photo by Jeff Rapps.

Spawn size depends on several factors. Younger, smaller females may lay only 100-300 eggs, while full-size adults may deposit more than 2000 eggs in a single spawn! Fry left in the breeding tank with their parents have grown faster than those removed and incubated as eggs. Egg removal will shorten the time between spawnings; I have found that female umbies can breed again as soon as 12 days after the last batch of eggs was laid. However, so much energy is required to ripen another batch of eggs that growth of the female is probably inhibited. Meanwhile the male continues to grow a faster rate than his mate. Initially I removed the fry from the parents' tank at about four weeks postspawning. By this time, young measured nearly 0.25" in length. In recent years however one or both of the parents has eaten wrigglers several spawns in a row; as a result, I've begun to remove spawns as wrigglers to raise them in isolation. After 4-5 months of regular feedings and frequent water changes, juveniles measuring 1.5" in length are ready for resale or trade.

In this overview of the care and breeding of Caquetaia umbrifera. I have shared my experiences in keeping this beautiful cichlid. These observations can readily be applied to many other large, monogamous, biparentally-custodial, substrate-spawners.

Caquetaia umbrifera is my personal favorite when it comes to New World cichlids presently kept in the hobby. I currently maintain three breeding pairs of umbies, the largest male measuring over 22" in total length. Large cichlids are known to evoke images of power and grandeur. Adult umbies are all this and more - not only by virtue of their awesome size, but because they combine gorgeous colors with an outgoing personality (as fish go), and yet comport themselves with grace and dignity.

References (1):


Rapps, Jeff. (Jun 10, 2000). "Husbandry Of Caquetaia umbrifera, The Unsung King Of New World Cichlids". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Oct 04, 2023, from: