Eartheaters: A Primer
In the dazzling pantheon that is Cichlidae, each family has something that makes it unique. In this post, we will study the Geophagans - the Eartheaters.
Eartheaters, the literal translation of Geophagans, make their living sifting through the substrate for tidbits, like small Crustacea, aquatic worms, plant debris and insect larvae. Most of them will take food from the water column if given the opportunity, but the usual method of feeding is to take a mouthful of substrate and sift out food items, expelling the substrate through rake-like structures in the gills.
Each species of Eartheater is different. Some are unbelievably peaceful fishes, some holy terrors. They range from just a few inches to over a foot long, and size is no indication of behavior. Some are mouthbrooders, some are substrate spawners. All grow up to be very attractive, colorful fishes.
And the vast majority of them are suitable for the planted tank, and some must be kept in such aquariums for their continued health. None of the almost two dozen species I've kept tear out plants; in fact, they use them for cover and security. Most are excellent community fishes and won't touch tankmates too large to eat. And all of them are great parents
Many will only spawn in soft, acidic water, and some will only live in such waters. The majority are, however, adaptable to a point, but none do well in hard, alkaline water like pH's in the high 7's and hardness over 15 degrees.
Since they do comb the substrate, it behooves one to have a soft substrate for the fishes. Small-grade gravel is best, but aquatic soils and mixes of coarse sand and small gravel can be used. They will keep the top layer of your substrate turned, especially the larger species, since they work on the substrate far more than most of the smaller species do.
The Austrian scientist Johann Jacob Heckel erected the Geophagus Genus in the early 19th Century, and one of the fish in this list is named after him.
Now, some species.
Hailing from the warm waterways of Brazil and Guyana comes Satanoperca leucosticta, the Long-Nosed Eartheater. Often misidentified as S. jurupari, the Long Nose Eartheater for many, many years was THE Eartheater in the hobby. The true S. jurupari is very, very rare in the hobby, and it's highly unlikely you'll see one.
Topping out at a foot long in a suitably-sized aquarium, say a 200 gallon; S. leucosticta are more usually around nine inches when kept smaller containers. This is perhaps the most peaceful larger Cichlid you can buy. Very, very mellow, and can be kept with larger tetras, like Lemon or Diamond Tetras, Corydoras catfish, peaceful loricariads; even the wisp-like hatchet fish are perfectly safe with this Eartheater.
Like many others in the family, leucosticta makes its living by sifting though the substrate. The fish takes a mouthful of gravel, makes a chewing motion to sift out tidbits, then expels the gravel though the rake-like structures in the gills. Thus, a group of these fish will keep the top two inches of your substrate thoroughly turned.
That habit denotes feeding. Live and frozen worms, insect larvae and Crustaceans, like Mysis shrimp, are best for them. Prepared foods should sink, like tablets designed for catfish. They will happily nibble fresh vegetables like cucumber.
For some reason, this fish has an almost mystical meaning to the native people in its natural waters. They call it the 'Devil Fish' as it is both revered and feared. In fact, the Genus name, Satanoperca, means Devil's Perch.
These fish are a perfect Cichlid for the large, planted aquarium with driftwood and stones. Though they come from still waters, strong filtration should be employed, as this fish is sensitive to dissolved organics like high Nitrate, and their foraging does stir up the substrate a bit. Filtration though peat is very, very helpful with this species, as though it can be kept up to pH 7.5 with moderate hardness, it is most colorful and healthy in soft water; about gH 6 or lower, with a slightly acid pH. They are truly brilliant fishes, especially the males, when kept in peat filtered, soft water.
The tank should have a soft substrate, say a mix of fine gravel mixed with dark, coarse sand, or one of the aquatic soils so in vogue for planted tanks these days. Clean, water-logged leaves, like those from Oak trees, covering the substrate in the main swimming area, will enable the keeper to see not only natural behavior, but natural colors as well. Temperatures should be 77 degrees up to 84. I kept mine at 78.
In tanks with soft, slightly acid water, the fish is a greenish yellow, with glitters of iridescent yellow-gold on each scale. In exceptionally well-kept examples, electric turquoise lines radiate on the head and the scales near it really sparkle. A very attractive Cichlid in health. They should be the only Cichlids in the tank, as they don't do mix well at all with others as they are easily intimidated. They can be kept in groups of six or more in a large enough aquarium, but when they pair up, the others in the group should be removed unless the tank is quite large and they can stay out of line of sight.
These fish are mouthbrooders, and both sexes share the duties. A flat stone is cleaned and receives the spawn, which in about a day, are picked up in the mouth of the female. The brood is switched between she and her mate almost every day, so neither starve. After two weeks the spawn in released, and you can feed the fry baby brine shrimp immediately. They will shelter in the mouth of the closest parent when frightened until they can no longer fit. Warming the water to about 85 over a week or so and feeding them lots of live and frozen foods usually results in a spawn. You can leave the fry with the parents for a month as allowing the parents to raise them results in much better fry. Successive broods form a nuclear family with their parents.
A very interesting, colorful Cichlid. Recommended.
On to Part 2