The Case of the Ancistrus Assassin
This strange, twisted and bizarre case of murder and mayhem started about three (3) years ago. I ventured into a tropical fish auction and discovered, much to my delight, a group of five (5) bushy nose Ancistrus up for auction. The fish were approximately 3 inches in length and two (2) of them were sporting their trademark bristles. I have heard from other hobbyists that these fish are easy to breed, maintenance is next to nothing and they will eat anything. I learned later that whoever sold me this “bill of goods” did not have these particular fish in mind.
I said to myself that I must have these little beauties, at almost any cost. I had a nice 20-gallon long, filled with clay pots, ceramic logs and algae covered stones just waiting for this algae eating, hide and seek, catfish. I was also thinking that spawning these fish would give me the fifth (5th) type of catfish or loach spawning that was required for my hobbyist clubs “Breeder Specialist Award. I figured that I could earn some easy BAP (Breeder Award Points) scores and obtain a coveted “Specialist Award” in the process. My greedy little mind started adding up the points these beauties would obtain for me, even though I still didn’t have them yet. I also thought of the great prestige of having the rare “Specialist” award presented to me. This was not just any “Specialist” award; oh no this was for CATFISH! This would be quite an honor. After all, almost anyone could spawn cichlids or livebearers or even propagate plants, but only the best were able to breed CATFISH!
I could hardly contain myself when the group came up to the auction block. The auctioneer started the process by stating how wonderful these fish were and that they would be interesting, if you ever saw them after placing them in an aquarium. He droned on about the only time that you saw them was when they died. He mumbled about they were fussy eaters and defecated a lot. He was not the type of auctioneer I would want to have trying to sell my fish. He was like a screen door salesman for submarines. Anyway the bidding started at $3.00. I immediately wanted to eliminate the competition by making a “jump bid” of $5.00. Well this had the desired effect because no one else bid on them. “Those fools, what were they ever thinking?” “Don’t they realize they are letting these classic beauties slip out of their grasp for “loose change”?” Well their loss is my gain. I immediately paid for them and left for home with my prize bag of future BAP points.
I performed the “drip” method of acclimating these little wonders into their new home. It took several hours, but I didn’t want anything happening to these treasures. They immediately loved their new home. They quickly disappeared under rocks, into caves and hid themselves very effectively. For several months the only time I had the opportunity to see them in action was with the lights out, using a flashlight with a red lens cover on and after feeding algae wafers and frozen zucchini tied to rocks. It was interesting to note that one of the males was pushing out the other male and the females when it came to feeding time, I believed that this was just a “macho” display of bravado to impress the ladies. Little did I realize that this was a small sign of what was to come?
One afternoon I had to move my little family of Ancistrus to a smaller home. I had to move them because of a recent explosion of newborn fry from multiple African cichlids. I needed “grow out” room and I needed it quickly.
I moved the Ancistrus family into a 10 gallon wide, but to compensate I added more hiding places and an additional overflow filter. They seemed content.
Two days later when I returned home from work I went to feed the fish and all the fish were dead, except for one male. The bodies were strewn all over the tank. There were bite marks and blood along with the beat up bodies. I thought that there was breeding or spawning ritual that had gotten out of hand. The lone remaining male refused to come out of his clay pot. I believed that he was either very afraid of what had happened and that he had only gotten caught up into the ecstasy of the spawn or that he was remorseful of what he had done and was seeking solace or penance for his wrongdoing.
I let a few months go by and when the fry problems resolved themselves I returned the male to his original 20 gallon long. Much to his delight I had obtained, from a local pet shop, a pair of females; one his size and one slightly larger. I figured that they could take care of themselves. All was fine for several months and then I was asked to “loan out” my smaller female ancistrus to a good friend. Now there was only the two of them.
Several months went by with the two fish getting along famously. The male would allow the female near his clay pot and on the wood piece adjacent to his home. He never bothered her. They would eat frozen bloodworms and zucchini together, the seemed like the perfect couple. I could hear the “pitter patter” of little baby ancistrus any day now. The male would be out more eating and seeming to store up food reserves for the soon to come day of nest guarding.
After about a week I went to see how the “newly weds” were behaving and I could not find the female anywhere. The male was in his clay pot and he was not coming out. I finally found the female wedged into a conch shell. She was inside as far as she could go and could not back out. I could not understand why this had happened? I had to resort to using wire cutters to cut her out. She was just barely breathing. She was beaten and bloodied. After I freed her, she died. As I turned her onto her back I noticed a string of yellow eggs still attached to her breeding tube. I assumed that the male was guarding the nest in the clay pot. I saved and froze ten (10) eggs to remind me of this day. I gave the male two weeks. I then investigated the clay pot…. NO EGGS! Why that murdering bastard! He killed again. I realized then and there that there was no saving this evil creature from himself. He only lives for the thrill of killing. I was strongly tempted right then to remove the brute and bounce him off the floor and walls. I then realized that I would be no better than he. I had to think of what justice I could meet out to this sucker-mouthed assassin. There was a fish auction coming up for that weekend. I got an idea!
The Sunday of the auction I woke extra early so I could triple bag my ancistrus. I tossed into the bag a couple of Jungle Labs oxygen tablets and added a mild sedative. I wanted this murdering pescadore healthy but subdued. I arrived at the auction and was about to enter my ancistrus into the bags of fish going to the auction block when I noticed a little boy of about ten (10) years old standing on the side. I asked him what he was doing and he said that he was with his daddy and wanted to bring a fish home for his new tank. I asked his dad what type of fish he was keeping. He said that he has a group of South American cichlids called Heros or Cichlosoma dovii. The dominant male was huge, measuring over two feet in length and beats the hell out of anything going into his domain.
I said “Wow, what a coincidence? I have just the fish for you!” Let your dovii try to beat up on this sucker catfish! This little ancistrus could withstand anything he had to offer and come back for more. The father looked a little skeptical as I showed him the bag my little murderer was in. I said that don’t let size fool you, this little guy was a bundle of dynamite. The father asked his son if this fish would be the one he wanted and the son was overjoyed. The father insisted that in order to have a deal he must make his son pay for the fish. I said that since it is your son’s fish I would let him have it for 10 cents (one cent for each egg I frooze). The boy paid me and I gave him the fish. The ancistrus had what appeared to be a sly smile on his face, probably anticipating the new havoc he would wrought on his unsuspecting tank mates. As I saw the father and son leave with their prize I could help but think that there is justice after all, now that ancistrus will get his butt kicked over and over again. I turned to see the little boy was rapidly jerking the bag to make the fish “move” in the bag, as he walked to the family car. I smiled as I thought that there is a “pay back justice” even for fish.
I left the auction with a bag of whiptail cats. I was now ready for a catfish that seemed to be on tranquilizers. If I get babies great, if not that’s OK also. Be careful the next time you seek out ancistrus catfish, they may contain one that is an ancistrus assassin!
Author: Joe Graffagnino