Raging Hormones ... Real Color ... Or Not?
By Keegan Armke (11-99)

          Have you ever bought a beautifully colored fish for your aquarium only to disappointingly watch the colors disappear after a month or two?
          This seems to be a common and increasing concern among many of the aquarists with which we deal. It is a good thing that these hobbyists are not putting up with these color-enhanced fish. Enhancing the colors of the fish to artificial proportions is done by feeding fish food treated with hormones or similar chemical ingredients.
           Feeding safe, quality foods may definitely improve the color and health and breeding capabilities of fish. But it does not allow for the brilliant coloration of females and immature juveniles which would not otherwise exhibit such colors.
           Recently I made a personal visit to a store which had a display of brilliantly colored cichlids. These were Malawi fish about an inch long overall. Odd! Especially odd was a tank of the quite rare Otopharynx lithobates Zimbawe. Every single juvenile in the tank exhibited a glowing purple coloration with a full yellow blaze that would have done justice to the finest adult show male of this variety. With more than suspicion, I asked the store owner how this group of fish had been able to obtain such unreal coloration. When he replied that they had arrived to his store with this coloration, I explained that our business (Armke's Rare Aquarium Fish) was the original importer of these O. lithobates Zimbawe that were swimming in his tank...and that these fish definitely did not arrive so colored. (This fish, in our considerable experience, must reach at least two inches before the first hints of "coloration" is shown by males of the species.)
           The store owner then admitted that the fish had been fed a "special" new food that was giving his fish lots of artificial color. His reason for feeding the "enhancement" food: Other stores were doing it and he had to compete.
           There is a reason why mother nature wants certain juvenile fish uncolored. At small size, the bland camouflage color makes it easier for them to hide and to grow into adults. It is always best to not try and change the natural process.
           This artificial color flake also takes its toll on adult fish. We had a customer contact us and ask if a Copadichromis azureus female looks like the male. Of course, it doesn't...naturally. Although fish food high in carotene such as krill and relatives can cause natural enhancement of certain colors in juveniles and females of some species, the affect is not at all the same as the use of artificial hormones. I told the customer to wait about a month, and then to get back with us. Later the customer called back with the startling news that the brightly colored "pair" of azureus he had bought were now two drab females. Hormones!
            When fed to adult fish, this hormone flake can make the fish actual seem to glow with color, only to darken and never regain natural color once the treatment has ceased. The enhancing ingredients also can cause the fish to become infertile, thus unable to reproduce. In extreme instances, we understand it can cause fish fatalities.
           At Armke's, we neither offer hormone-enhanced fish nor condone the practice. There are natural, humane ways to obtain quality in captive fishes. To obtain maximum natural coloration, we would probably advise using wild-caught parents to produce F1 (first generation) fry...then to maintain the fry in uncrowded conditions with frequent partial water changes...and fed with a nicely varied diet of quality flake foods and live baby brine shrimp. You might be surprised at the results you can achive, but never, never, never will every single fish from the spawn attain bright unnatural color!
            When next you are enticed to buy that spectacularly colored little fish that you deep-down know has too much color to be true...don't.

How to Identify Treated Fish

     1. Be wary of any tank of fish where all specimens of a single species appear to be "colored" males, regardless of size. Rarely will all fish in a group be males...and even when they are, subdominant males usually adopt very subdued colors. Most groups will also contain females which are relatively colorless. (There are exceptions to this, such as with Pseudotropheus demasoni and other mbuna species. If in doubt, be sure to inquire carefully before buying.)

     2. If all fish in the tank are an unnatural-looking, bright blue-purple, be very suspicious. Blues and purples are the easiest colors to enhance. The colors will almost appear to glow.

     3. Be extremely wary when you find a tank of small specimens--under 2 inches or so--all nicely colored. With some exceptions, African cichlids do not obtain nice color until they begin to mature. Immature specimens usually display the colors of the females, and this color is often quite drab.

     4. Species most likely to be treated to obtain special, premature coloring include such favorites as Malawi peacocks (genus Aulonocara), the "electric blue ahli" (Sciaenochromis fryeri), species from the genera Copadichromis and Protomelas, among others. Avoid buying young of any of these fish which are brightly colored...unless you are quite confident of the source and certain that they are untreated.

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