Not Just a Phantom The Jotura From Cuba

by Uwe Werner
I don’t know how many times I sat looking over Fowler’s original description of Cichlasoma ramsdeni (1938) and the pictures in Rivero & Rivas (1940) in the early 1980s because I was convinced that this cichlid really existed. Other cichlid freaks did likewise, and so Heiner Garbe traveled to Cuba several times to track down this species. But he couldn’t find it where it was actually supposed to occur. It has probably died out in its type locality.

It is Garbe’s persistence that we have to thank for his eventually managing to find and import this attractive cichlid. No, the cichlids that currently go by the name of Nandopsis ramsdeni aren’t colorful, and yet they immediately catch the eye. And, paradoxical as it may sound, that is mainly because of their lack of color, as well as their extraordinary shape. In 1995, when we managed to obtain the first youngsters, these fishes were much in demand, but unfortunately this interest declined far too quickly. I don’t know whether the species is still available in the aquarium trade today. In any case it will be difficult to import it again.

Older males of Nandopsis ramsdeni have an impressive appearance.
Biajaca and Joturo

Two cichlid species are known from the Caribbean island of Cuba, and occur only there – in other words they are endemic. The Cuban Cichlid, Nandopsis tetracanthus, several populations or subspecies of which have been described, has long been known by aquarists. At least that is the case with two of these forms, all of which are known to the islanders by the same popular name and are called ‘Biajaca’. They have been available as aquarium fishes since the 1980s.

The second species native to Cuba was first imported to Germany for aquarium keeping in the beginning of 1995 and is certainly known by only a very limited number of aquarists. I refer to the “extinct” species Nandopsis ramsdeni, no longer found in its native land at the locations given in the scientific description, but whose actual existence is supported by, inter alia, the fact that it has its own popular name and is called “Joturo” by the local people.

However, we did not know for certain until the end of 1994 / beginning of 1995 that there was actually a good species lurking behind this name: it could also perhaps have been a population of N. tetracanthus. But its distinctness was supported by the fact that both Fowler (1938) and Howell Rivero & Rivas (1940) had indicated that “Joturo” and “Biajaca” were so different that it was immediately clear from superficial examination that they must be two distinct species.

The Rio Sagua in the mountains of eastern Cuba, habitat of N. ramsdeni. Photo H. Garbe.
Specifically, N. tetracanthus is a cylindrical, rather plump and solidly-built cichlid, while N. ramsdeni is extraordinarily compressed laterally and also significantly deeper-bodied. In addition they are distinguished by their head shape, which will be discussed later, as well as their coloration and patterning.

N. tetracanthus almost always exhibits a strongly marked pattern of black or black-brown bands and spots. The base coloration is light, but yellowish and in places even coppery metallic. Males grow significantly larger, and develop longer fins and a uniformly convex head profile. Females remain about a third smaller. They can be recognized at a size of as little as four to five centimeters (1.6 –2.0 in) by a dark zone on the anterior and central parts of the dorsal fin and by a dark throat and breast region, which, depending on mood, can extend from the lower lip to the anal fin. All in all they look darker in color and – at least when motivated – more contrastingly patterned.

By contrast, N. ramsdeni is more of a uniform gray and exhibits traces of vertical bars only when young. Later on, adult individuals sometimes appear gray-brown, but more frequently light gray, even practically white when they are feeling good and at breeding time, with dark centers to the scales forming black areas on the sides of the body. The females are again smaller in this species and usually have no or only a hint of a washed-out, miniature spot on the central part of the dorsal fin, and tend to have a more contrasting coloration; in other words, the base color is generally lighter, while all the dark areas become intense black.

In the Rio Toa N. ramsdeni lives syntopic with an elongate “mountain form” of N. tetracanthus. Photo H. Garbe.
The two species also differ in minor details if you look closely. Thus – and this is a notable difference – N. ramsdeni has five spines in the anal fin, while in N. tetracanthus, as its scientific name (tetracanthus) suggests, there are only four. In addition, the mouth is smaller in N. ramsdeni and the lower jaw doesn’t protrude. And in N. ramsdeni the cheek scales are larger and arranged in four rows, while N. tetracanthus has six to eight rows of significantly smaller cheek scales. The dorsal and anal fins are only slightly prolonged in N. tetracanthus, while in N. ramsdeni they have long thread-like extensions that in extreme cases can extend to the posterior edge of the caudal fin. Moreover, the latter species develops a noticeable, “pointed” nuchal hump in both sexes, which is not so much the case in N. tetracanthus, although this species too can develop a slight nuchal hump, at least in males.

The specific name of Nandopsis ramsdeni is a dedication name. Fowler named this cichlid, which originates from the extreme east of Cuba, in honor of the collector, Dr. Charles T. Ramsden. The holotype used in the description was caught in the Arroyo Hondo, near the villages of Jamaica and Yateras to the east of Guantánamo. It measured 234 mm (9.2 in). The paratypes originated from the Guaso River, a tributary of the Guantánamo. But the species is probably no longer found in these rivers today, though that cannot be stated unequivocally. Since both rivers now carry murky water, it seems to me to be too risky completely to exclude the possibility of residual occurrence. Be that as it may, the species is an inhabitant of fresh water. Howell Rivero & Rivas (1940) stated that N. ramsdeni doesn’t penetrate into brackish water or ocean areas.

A juvenile male N. ramsdeni in the aquarium.
Vanished – and found again

Nandopsis ramsdeni is a large cichlid whose flesh is very tasty. At least Howell Rivero & Rivas quote an old Cuban saying that goes, “El que coma Joturo y se bañe en el Rio Guaso no deja a Guantánamo.” (He who eats Joturo and bathes in the Rio Guaso will never again leave Guantánamo.) That was probably also the reason why in 1939 the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture released more than 4000 (!) of these cichlids in various rivers in Cuba, in order to safeguard the population.

And this action wasn’t limited to the natural distribution region of the species, that is, to the eastern part of the island, but also sought to introduce the species further to the west. Despite these efforts, it was without success, at least initially. At any rate Garbe, who looked for N. ramsdeni at the end of the 1980s, specifically at the locations mentioned in the scientific literature, was initially unable to find the fish. In 1990 he even reported that the Cubans didn’t even know any more to what sort of cichlid the popular name ‘Joturo’ referred. But Garbe didn’t give up! After his failure in 1990, he obstinately continued searching and traveled again to eastern Cuba in December 1994, in order to search for N. ramsdeni even in the mountain streams this time. And this time he found it. Although the species still couldn’t be found in the rivers cited by Fowler and Rivero & Rivas, he traveled north from a place called Bayate, which lies some 800 m (2625 ft) above sea level, and crossed the watershed in order to fish in a tributary of the Rio Sagua near Jagueyon. And there, in cool water with a temperature of only 21°C (70°F) (carbonate hardness 9°KH, total hardness 13°dGH; pH 8.5), he found the long-sought N. ramsdeni living syntopically with a number of rather elongate (probably an adaptation to the fast-flowing water) N. tetracanthus, and some tilapias of an unidentified species, introduced there as in many places in Central America.

Later Garbe also found N. ramsdeni in one of the upper tributaries of the Rio Toa, which drains the Baracoa Mountains in eastern Cuba. At the village of Palenque, around 750 m (2461 ft) above sea level and hence at a very high altitude, he again found these fishes in clear water with a slight current and similar parameters to those at Jagueyon.

With the egg clutch almost complete, it will be tended by the female.

Garbe expressed the view that the cichlids in these mountain rivers were feeding on the algae that are abundant there, coating the pebbles and limestone rocks. But they probably also feed on the numerous freshwater shrimps (“swimming shrimps”) present there and found in the open water mainly at night; these were so common in places that they made it very difficult for him to take photographs under water.

After Garbe reported his travels and made the locations of his finds public, American cichlid freaks also headed for Cuba to track down N. ramsdeni. Tallet (1996), who was also successful, listed two additional rivers in which the species lives. According to his data, the current distribution region encompasses at least the rivers Bano, Maniacales, and Purialitos (near El Salvador), Yateras (near La Felicidad), Toa (near Palenque), and Sagua (near Jagueyon).

Tallet added that the Cuban Instituto Nacional de la Pesca (National Institute of Fisheries) had again released Joturos in 1969, specifically in various lakes to the west of the natural distribution region. He listed the Laguna Leoneros in the Cauto drainage in Gramma Province, plus various “reservoirs”, namely the Presa Caonao, the Presa Mañana de Santa Ana in the province of Camaguey, and the Presa Aridanes in the north of the province of Sancti Spiritus. It appears unlikely that the species would have failed to colonize one or another of these lakes.

Despite these positive reports, it remains likely that N. ramsdeni probably no longer occurs in the southward-draining rivers of eastern Cuba. They have probably disappeared due to the constantly deteriorating water quality: Garbe reported that certain sections of the Rio Guaso and the Rio Guantánamo were heavily polluted through sewers and industrial outfalls. In addition there is the ever-increasing pressure of competition: specifically, as well as the rather aggressive N. tetracanthus, the introduced tilapias, and black bass (Micropterus) have proliferated to such an extent that the comparatively retiring N. ramsdeni has probably been unable to hold its own.

The newly-hatched larvae are placed in a pit flanked by stones.
Maintenance and reproductive behavior

I have kept N. ramsdeni myself and compared notes with Garbe and other members of the Deutsche Cichliden-Gesellschaft (German Cichlid Association) who have likewise kept these big cichlids – the species grows to around 30 centimeters (11.8 in) long. All in all, despite their relatively large size they are retiring, sometimes even rather shy, and not very aggressive cichlids, which will take any food they can manage in the aquarium. Young specimens will pounce greedily on frozen mosquito larvae, Mysis, Krill, and Artemia. Older individuals can also be given shrimps, mussel meat, prawns, and chopped fish, but the pieces of food shouldn’t be too large, as N. ramsdeni – as already stated – has a rather small mouth. The fact that all ages will also eat flake food and sticks equally greedily makes it easy for us to keep them in the aquarium.

Breeding isn’t difficult either, and even fairly young specimens will spawn successfully. I should perhaps even say that young pairs spawn more willingly – and at shorter intervals, than older ones. In my experience females will spawn at a size of only around 10 cm (3.9 in), males at about 12 cm (4.7 in) total length. Juveniles can be housed in aquaria 100 cm (39.4 in) or more in length for the time being, but after a pair has formed all the excess conspecifics must be removed, as they will be vigorously bitten. Only in adequately large aquaria – around two meters long (6.56 ft) – can a group of these attractive-looking (largely because of their unusual form) cichlids usually be kept together without concern.

The aquarium for N. ramsdeni should always contain numerous hiding-places in the form of rocks and wood, but not so much “tight-fitting” caves but structuring of the bottom area to produce more open retreats, line-of-sight barriers, and other cover. Higher plants, in particular hardier species, are not molested by the fishes, and hence are also suitable as decor. However, plants that are in the way during preparation for spawning may be dug up – something that practically all large cichlids do - or bitten off without further ado.

Females change color as soon as they come into spawning condition. The former largely uniform gray to gray-brown becomes lighter, while dark spots – and in occasional cases even large areas – on the body and dorsal fin stand out in black. The dominant males parade with spread fins, initially chasing away any displaying females, but then after a few days tolerating them in the immediate vicinity for longer periods and courting them in return; the male now positions himself at an angle in front of the female, quivering his body with fins outspread, in order to demonstrate his size and strength.

Later the male follows the female around and inspects possible spawning sites with her, both partners indicating suitable spots by nudging them with head lowered. The pair then begin to dig in unison, and it is amazing the enormous amounts of sand and gravel they shift!

Brood care lasts for several weeks, during which the fry grow enormously.
N. ramsdeni is a typical open brooder, even though the species usually spawns on vertical, slanting, or alike surfaces, which the two partners “process” or clean thoroughly with their mouths beforehand. The small, yellowish-transparent eggs are barely noticeable on similar-colored substrates. They are fanned and mouthed almost exclusively by the female, who frequently nearly makes body contact with the eggs. She carefully picks dead eggs out of the clutch. The male limits himself to the defense of the surrounding area and chases away potential brood predators, with conspecifics in particular being attacked violently.

At 27°C (80.6°F) the larvae hatch after just four days have passed. By contrast the further development of the larvae to free-swimming fry takes significantly longer and lasts for around seven days. During this period both parents together place the larvae in small pits in the bottom; these are almost always flanked by rocks so there is very little danger of the larvae being buried alive by sand falling back in. In my experience the larvae are usually moved just once, but sometimes several times, by the parents.

Once the fry, which initially look very tiny, are free-swimming they can immediately be fed with Artemia nauplii. To start with they keep close together and obey the signals of both parents or the mother, whose contrasting black and white is now particularly boldly expressed. But the female is dominant not only in terms of her brood-care coloration, but also in her dedication. Nevertheless it does sometimes happen that the stronger male commandeers the brood care, chasing the female away and guarding the young by himself. In such cases I advise siphoning off the fry, as after his initial euphoria the male frequently doesn’t look after them adequately in the long term and they may then be lost.

The rearing of the fry isn’t always without problems, although they grow very fast initially and look very robust. It sometimes happens that, as in N. tetracanthus and other cichlids from Central and South America, practically all the young of a brood suddenly stop feeding when they are two to three centimeters long (0.8–1.2 in), sit apathetically in the corners of the aquarium, and die after a short time, usually exhibiting dark spots on the body. This phenomenon happens particularly when other fishes are present or after the young have been moved, and thus appears to be a stress reaction. So it is better to rear the young of this species by themselves! By contrast, adults that are moved, and which are immediately masters of their new surroundings, normally tolerate the transfer without problems.


Fowler, H. W. (1938) A small collection of fresh-water fishes from eastern Cuba. Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phil., 90: 143–146.

Garbe, H. (1990) Schwarze Schönheiten von der roten Insel. Auf der Suche nach aquaristisch neuen Varianten von “Cichlasoma” tetracanthus im Südwesten und Südosten Cubas. DCG-Info, 21 (1): 1–10.

Garbe, H. (1995) Ein Phantom meldet sich zurück. “Cichlasoma” ramsdeni erstmals lebend nach Europa eingeführt. DATZ, 48: 248–253.

Howell Rivero, L. & L.R. Rivas (1940) Algunas consideraciones sobre los ciclidos de Cuba. Mem. Soc. Cub. Hist. Nat.,14(4): 373–395.

Stawikowski, R. & U. Werner (1998) Die Buntbarsche Amerikas, vol. 1. Eugen Ulmer Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany. 540 pp.

Tallet, L. C. (1996) Meet the Joturo again. Trop. Fish Hobby, 44 (8): 94–104.

Werner, U. (1984) Ein Traum wurde Wirklichkeit: Zur Neueinführung von Cichlasoma tetracanthus, dem Cubabuntbarsch. Das Aquarium, 177: 126–131.

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