Christmas Fulu, Haplochromis (Xystichromis) phytophagus

Christmas Fulu, Haplochromis (Xystichromis) phytophagus

The genus Haplochromis has undergone a lot of changes and many species have been moved to other genera in the family Cichlidae. The Christmas Fulu was once known as Haplochromis phytophagus, but is today considered a member of the genus Xystichromis and its current scientific name is therefore Xystichromis phytophagus. These fishes are however still commonly referred to as “Haps” and “Lake Victoria Hap cichlids” by aquarists.

Xystichromis phytophagus is an endangered species and captive breeding programs are therefore important. It is already considered extinct in Lake Victoria, but is still quite common in Lake Kanyaboli, a nearby lake in the Kenyan Yala Swamp. 


Xystichromis phytophagus is commonly known as the Christmas fulu due to the shimmering and festive look displayed by the males during the breeding period. The males can exceed 11 cm in length while they females stay somewhat smaller.

Housing Christmas Fulu

A small breeding group of Xystichromis phytophagus with only one male can be comfortably housed in a 150 liter (40 gallon) aquarium, as long as you make sure that the females have plenty of suitable hiding spots. Keep at least a few females for each male.  If you want to keep a larger group, e.g. two males and up to 6-8 females, you will need a 250 liter aquarium (72 gallon) or bigger.

As mentioned above, sheltered areas and hiding spots are really important when keeping Christmas Fulu cichlids. You can for instance your plants, wood and rocks. If you want to keep more than one male, each male must be able to claim his end of the aquarium and stay there without being spotted by the other male. The sight line must therefore be blocked by aquarium decoration. 

The Christmas Fulu is actually not a very eager plant eater and can therefore be combined with most plant species in that regard, but it is a keen digger and digging can naturally also be a problem for plants. Plant species must therefore be wisely chosen; you can for instance go for floating plants and plants that can be anchored to wood. Due to this digging behavior, the use of heavy rocks or other forms of heavy aquarium decorations is a bit risky since the digging can make it fall over the fish in injure them.

Both sand and gravel is known to work well for Christmas Fulu cichlids. A substrate with sharp edges must naturally be avoided in an aquarium with digging fish, and you must also make sure that the size allows the fish to dig pits during courtship and spawning.


Xystichromis phytophagus is unfortunately extinct in Lake Victoria, but the species can still be found in Lake Kanyaboli, a nearby lake located in the Yala Swamp in the northern parts of Kenya. Since most specimens in the hobby hail from this lake, it is a good idea to mimic these conditions in the aquarium. The pH-value in the Yala Swamp stays within the 7.5-8.2 range and the carbonate hardness is 6-7 dH. The recommended water temperature is 25-33° C (77-92° F).

Xystichromis phytophagus is known to be quite adaptable in captivity and can usually adjust to new water chemistry as long as the change is slow and gradual and you avoid the extremes. There are even reports of breeding taking in place in soft water with a neutral pH-value.

What you never should try to make your Christmas Fulu’s adapt to is high levels of nitrogenous waste, because this will cause severe injury in your fish. Vigorous filtration must be combined with regular water changes. With powerful filtration, a 25-30% water change per week can be enough, provided that you avoid over feeding. Low stocking density will reduce the risk of high levels of nitrogenous waste.

Tank mates

If you want to combine Xystichromis phytophagus with other species, there are many suitable candidates, provided of course that your aquarium is large enough and that you refrain from big predatory fish. Choosing Lake Victoria species is a good idea since they will appreciate the same water chemistry and temperature as the Christmas Fulu. Two examples of species that have been successfully housed with Xystichromis phytophagus are Brycinus sadleri and Synodontis afrofisheri.

Feeding Haplochromis (Xystichromis) phytophagus

As mentioned earlier, the Christmas fulu is not very fond of eating plants in the aquarium. The reason behind this is that wild Christmas fulu’s feed chiefly on decomposing sedge leaves, not on healthy leaves. The leaves will not be digested by the fish, and scientists suspect that its real source of nutrition are the many microscopic animals found on decomposing leaves. In the aquarium, it is certainly not hard to make the Christmas fulu accept flake food, and it is also known to eat pellets. The diet should be vegetable based and preferably include spirulina. Christmas fulu cichlids will appreciate occasional threats in the form of meaty foods, but it is important not to give your fishes too much of this since it is not really natural for this fish to eat a lot of large (i.e. non-microscopic) animals.    

Breeding Christmas Fulu

The Christmas Fulu is a polygamous maternal mouthbrooder and getting a group of Christmas Fulu’s to breed in captivity is certainly not difficult. It is however important to keep male aggression under control during the breeding period. As mentioned above, a small group with only one male can be housed in a 150 liter (40 gallon) aquarium, while a larger group consisting of two males and 6-8 females need a 250 liter aquarium (66 gallon) or larger. The sightline between the males must also be blocked. Brooding females want to get away from the rest of the group and stay in sheltered areas, and the aquarium should therefore provide them with such spaces.

Pre-spawning behavior
In most scenarios, one of the males will establish dominance in the aquarium and show this by making his colors more striking. He will also chase the other male out of sight and keep the territory free from unripe females. It is common for the submissive male to dampen his colors to avoid aggression. A pit will be dug out by the dominant male and he will actively start to court the ripe females by carrying out lateral displays near the pit.

When a female becomes ready to spawn she will follow him to the pit, where the male will press his anal fin against the bottom of the pit. The sight of his egg spots at the bottom of the pit will trigger the female to release her own eggs at the site. As soon as she has deposited her eggs she will pick them up with her mouth. When she tries to pick up the male’s egg spots, he will shoot his sperm into her mouth and fertilize the eggs inside. This behavior can continue for up to 45 minutes. Small, young females normally produce less than 30 eggs per spawning, while big, old females can produce over 70. When all eggs has been picked up and fertilized, the female is chased away from the pit and seeks out a quiet place where she can brood her eggs in peace. The male will proceed to court a new ripe female.    

The brooding period normally lasts 14-16 days and during this time, the female will not eat nor socialize with the rest of the group. If you want to ensure a high fry survival, it is a good idea to place her in her own aquarium. The stress of being moved can cause her to spit her offspring and the move should therefore be carried out as late as possible. Use a fine net mesh for the transfer since this will catch even tiny fry. 

Fry care
Newly released fry can be fed a diet of newly hatched brine shrimp and crushed flake food. It is very important to keep the water quality up in the fry aquarium and small, daily water changes are recommended.

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