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Butterfly Ram Care Guide

Table of Contents

  • Common Names: Butterfly ram, dwarf cichlid,

  • Scientific Names: Mikrophagus ramirezi, Apistogramma ramirezi, Papilochromis ramirezi

  • Size: 1,5 – 2 inches

  • Minimum Tank Size: 2ft (15 gal)

  • Planted Tank Compatible? Yes

  • Care or Experience Level: Medium

  • Preferred Diet: Live foods, sinking dried foods

  • Original Part of the World: Orinoco river system, Venezuela

  • Aggression Level: Shy

Butterfly Ram Behavior

The butterfly ram tends to be a shy fish, hanging back within protected areas until they are confident enough to come out into the open. 

They are benthic fish, meaning that they tend to stay towards the lower part of the tank, close to the substrate. They can often be seen taking substrate up into their mouths and spitting it out – this is completely natural behavior.

As juveniles, butterfly rams are able to live in small groups. However, as they mature and start pairing off, rams tend to get territorial, so they will need some of their own space. Most commonly, rams are kept as a pair.

Butterfly Ram Appearance

It is the appearance of these fish that makes them such a popular choice.

Their electric colors are a real drawcard, particularly the electric blue highlights, the orange forehead, and the black bands along the back.

The shape is also pleasing, with a high spiny dorsal fin and prominent ventral fins.

As a result of the fish’s striking appearance, there have been many varieties and strains bred for the aquarium trade.

The most common is the German blue ram, which highlights the blue. Another common strain is the ‘gold’ which highlights the orange coloring throughout the body.

New colorations are under development, including a deep black body with a blue-ish hint.


Longfin and lyretail varieties have also been bred.

Due to the popularity of this fish in the aquarium trade, the blue and gold strains are generally quite affordable and easily available.

However, it is worth spending a little more time to make sure that you are buying good quality stock.

The species has been overbred for the trade, and so the specimens at the cheapest local fish shop may be weak and die easily.

If you are interested in getting one of the more exotic strains, it may be worth trying to source directly from a local breeder or trusted import specialist.

Butterfly Ram Tank Conditions

Decor

As the ram is a fish from a river environment, it generally prefers a sandy substrate with a few smooth stones. Branches, tree roots and leaf litter would be ideal. There should be some shady spots for the fish to take refuge in when they feel the need.

 

However, they do tend to be quite tolerant of less natural layouts, and are generally not bothered by clay pots, plastic pipes, sunken ships and the like. As long as there are some secluded spots for security, they’ll be happy.

Temperature

A key consideration for keeping the butterfly ram happy in your aquarium is that they like particularly warm water. A good range is 79-84°F. This immediately limits the other fish that can be kept with these rams, as that can be uncomfortably warm for many other tropical fish. 

Flow

Although the butterfly ram is native to a river environment, the Orinoco is a slow flowing river and the rams tend to be found close to the banks where the water is more still. Therefore generating a high flow through the environment in your aquarium is not important to this fish; in fact, calmer water is preferred.

Size

These are small fish, often referred to as dwarf cichlids, and therefore can be kept healthily in a tank on the smaller side. Generally, a 2ft (15 gal) is considered the smallest comfortable size for a pair on their own. 

 

Obviously, a larger tank would also be suitable – however, the fish do tend to get territorial once they have paired off. So, if one is planning to keep a few in a larger aquarium, make sure that there are different demarcated territories, with lines of sight broken up with décor like driftwood. These territories would be towards the bottom of the tank, near the substrate, as that is where rams like to spend most of their time.

Water Type

The fish comes from the Orinoco river system, which is typically very soft with a relatively low pH. It will be crucial to the health of your rams to have soft water. Generally, rams are less sensitive to pH, so long as it is in the range of 5 – 7 your fish will be happy.

 

Depending on the water that you have available at home, it may be a challenge to create soft, acidic water for your fish. An effective way to create this environment is to place leaves and driftwood in the tank. These tend to release tannins and organic acids into the water as they decompose, softening the water and bringing down the pH. These are the natural processes that create the blackwater environment that mimics the rams’ natural habitat.

 

However, one must be careful about what leaves are placed in the tank – anything off your lawn is not necessarily harmless to your fish! Some leaves can leach waxes or toxic substances into the water. Indian Almond leaves are a popular choice, with hobbyists claiming numerous benefits of the leaves for their fish.

Filtration

Rams are quite sensitive to water quality, so effort should be made to keep the nitrates in the tank fairly low. It goes without saying that these fish should only be introduced into a cycled tank with mature bacteria in the filter. In order to keep the water at high quality, a relatively large filter for the tank volume is preferred. Small but frequent water changes are recommended to keep the nitrates low without causing step changes in water quality. 

 

If you are uncertain about your water quality, or tend to be pedantic about details, simple test kits are available to test for nitrates and nitrites. Test strips are a possible cheap option, but their accuracy can be questionable. If you want to test for nitrates to be sure of your water quality, a dedicated nitrate test kit with an indicator solution is best.

Lighting

Of course one wants to show off these beautiful fish, particularly that electric blue! However, because they tend to be shy fish, slightly muted lighting is generally preferred. Brighter lighting is fine so long as there are shady spots where the fish can feel safe.

 

If you are housing them in a planted tank, you will need brighter lights for the plants to grow well, but so long as you have some stems and driftwood, there will be some shady little nooks for them to return to.

Butterfly Ram Tank Mates

It would be great to setup a biotope tank, filled with fish from South American rivers. Some ideal tankmates would be a school of Corydoras catfish, some open water tetras (Characids), and possibly and armored catfish (‘plecostomus’ catfish, L-cats). It is good to specifically look at tankmates that are comfortable with the warmer temperature needed for the rams.

 

Having small, schooling fish around seems to help rams to feel more comfortable, as it signals to them that there is no danger about. Some beautiful tetras that pair well with butterfly rams include the cardinal tetra and the green neon tetra. 

 

Aggressive or territorial fish must be avoided as tankmates for rams. Since the rams are beautiful fish, you will want them to feel comfortable enough to spend their time out in the open. This basically means that most other cichlids will not be good tankmates for your rams.

Butterfly Ram Diet

Butterfly rams are naturally benthophagous, which means that they feed in the benthic zone (near the substrate at the bottom). They can often be seen taking up mouthfuls of substrate and ejecting the grains out through the gills. They do this to sift through the substrate for edible items. In an aquarium they are prepared to snatch up sinking food from the water column.

In general, they are omnivorous, and so enjoy a wide range of foods. Some live foods like blood worms or Daphnia are recommended at times for variety in their diet, but they should also accept sinking granules.

How Long Do Butterfly Rams Live?

Healthy specimens can live as long as four years. However, given the mass production of this species, those bought at pet shops tend to be weaker and may only live for about two years. Of course, the water quality, diet and potential diseases or parasites will play a role in the longevity of each fish.

How Do Butterfly Rams Breed?

Adult rams are fairly easy to sex – the males tend to be larger, with more pronounced fin shapes and more vivid coloration. The females gain a pinkish belly, although this may not be the case in some of the coloration variations.

 

There are no particular triggers to induce spawning, but great water quality and ideal temperature are the two most important things to keep right. A varied diet including some live foods also helps to keep the fish happy and in their best health.

 

The female generally spawns her eggs on a flat surface close to the substrate, such as a flat stone or a leaf. The male swims over to fertilize the eggs once the female has laid them. Some heavily bred imported fish may struggle to fertilize the eggs. 

 

Both parents are involved in the care of the eggs and are very protective. However, it is a common problem that the parents eat the eggs. Generally, this should only happen a few times until they get the right idea. However, it is possible that they may simply eat all the eggs each time. In this case the eggs will need to be removed to be hatched in a separate tank.

 

Generally the eggs hatch after 2-3 days, but the fry only become free-swimming in another 5 days or so. If you are hoping to raise a fair number of the fry, they will need to be separated from any other tankmates. Preferably if their parents have the hang of it, they will protect the fry. Fry will need to be fed small live foods to start with such as microworm.

Frequently Asked Questions

No, technically they are two different species, but the only two within their genus of Mikrogeophagus. The Bolivian ram (Mikrogeophagus altispinosus) is found in a different part of South America (Bolivia – hence their name) and can be distinguished from the butterfly ram as they are bigger (up to twice the size) and less brightly colored, without the electric blue highlights. They share the same overall shape.

The butterfly ram has previously been denoted as an apisto species – Apistogramma ramirezi, and it can be seen that there are some similarities in the overall shape and location of the fish. However, there is actually a long and chequered taxonomic history of these fish, as they were grouped in the Papilochromis genus and the Apistogramma genus, before more recent consensus being that they (together with the Bolivian ram) should remain as Mikrogeophagus, one of the oldest classifications used.

Butterfly rams are prone to the usual suspects of common diseases such as ick and dropsy. Unfortunately, they are also prone to fish tuberculosis (TB). This is quite similar to human TB and will need antibiotics from a vet to treat effectively.

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