For Dempsey Lovers  
By Larry Arnold, Aqualand Pets Plus

 
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Jack Dempsey Factoids

Origin

Central America

Maximum Size

12’’ but 8’’ more typical

Longevity

10 years

Housing

Bigger the better

Security

Females need cover

Temperature

Prefers 75 to 82

Attitude

Hungry knock-around guy

Foods

Not picky

Water

Will live in old, yellow water.  Prefers it cleaner.

LA
You want your Jack Dempsey to look like this healthy mature male.

LA Pic
Not like this half-starved trade-in we took in.  We'll see what a healthy diet will do for her.

Why the Name?  Jack Dempsey was a world-renown heavy-weight boxer (or pugilist) in his day.  His name lives on today in the form of one of the more pugilistic fishes -- the Jack Dempsey, Cichlosoma octofasciatum, or whatever descriptive Latin tag the experts put on him these days.

LA Pic 
This "gold" male Dempsey is not near as pretty as the original.  Actually ugly.

LA Pic
Much smaller female of the breeding pair of gold Dempseys.

LA Pic
This guy looks much better.

You could make the point that all cichlids are rambunctious specimens that enjoy beating up on their tank mates and re-arranging their tank decor.  We could mention a few exceptions.  But on the average you’d be right.  Most cichlids do not belong in your average community tank.  (See our American Cichlid Fact Sheets for our tables of compatible and available Central and South American cichlids.)

 

The Beginning.  Small Dempseys start life smaller than a baby guppy.  Their parents fiercely protect them from other fishes.  Dempsey parents will bite you if you put your hand in with their fry.  

Tiny fry sport the typical black line that helps their parents keep them in line.  As they mature, they develop an extremely attractive black and white pattern.

Dempseys are one of the few egglayers that will eat dry food from birth.  Newly-hatched brine shrimps work better, of course, but many will accept finely powdered dry foods.

Parallel Worlds.  Think of Jack Dempseys as warm water sunfishes (Centrarchids).  If you’ve ever fished for bluegills in a clear water lake in the spring, you’ve seen typical Jack Dempsey spawning behavior.  Pairs dig theoretically defendable shallow pits in which they lay their eggs.  If you drag a plug or any crank bait thru that protected area, you will harvest that sunfish -- the male over 90% of the time.

LA Pic
We keep our larger Dempseys way up on the top.

Adults.  Full-grown Dempseys can grow to 12 or more inches.   We saw an ancient one in Peoria that was a misshapen 14 inches.  Most top out at eight..  They are a very dark blue liberally sprinkled with iridescent blue spangles.  Males usually sport twice as many spangles as the females.  Their top and bottom fins are often trimmed in red, orange, or yellow.   Cichlids and centrarchids both intensify their colors at breeding time -- especially the males.  

LA Pic
One of the new dwarf blue Jack Dempseys.  Expensive even at one inch.

Substrate.  Over dark gravels, Dempseys develop darker colors.  Over lighter gravels they bleach out.

Color Foods.  Cichlids are nearly all strongly affected by the color foods and those with spirulina.  Color foods work to bring out their breeding colors.

Dempsey Fry.  Most small fry are neutral or camouflage colors.  Predators always eat the pretty fish first.   Half-inch-long Dempsey babies stand out from other cichlid fry because they are an eye-catching mottled black and white.  (Baby oscars look like this also.)  These eye-catching juvenile colors make them sellable at an early age.

LA Pic
Baby Jack Dempseys at 1.5 inches (over light gravel).

LA Pic
Some one inch Jack Dempseys over no gravel.

LA Pic
At 1.5 inches, Jack Dempseys start developing attractive colors.

LA Pic
At 4-inches, Jack Dempseys develop even more colors.

The Young.  At young ages (under two inches) Dempseys get along fine with other more average fishes (swords, mollies, tetras and so forth).  But Dempseys keep growing.  At three inches long they are not so much bullies (like red devils) as they are needful of more room.  And they take it.

Give them Room.  In a 10-gallon tank,  your Dempsey will take his 90% of the space and keep the other fish intimidated into whatever nooks and crannies they can find.

In a 20H, he only needs half the tank space.  In a 30, he’ll only take a third.  Problems with Dempseys arise when you try to keep them in small quarters. 

LA Pic
At 4 to 6 inches Jack Dempseys start fighting and pairing off.

LA Pic
Broken nose?

LA Pic
Female Dempseys usually have half the spangles of the male above.

Half-grown (4-6 inch) Dempseys want a cubic foot of space.  Unless kept with other equally stout and argumentative fishes, they will take it -- often to the detriment of less combative tank mates.  For best results keep them mostly with other rowdy cichlids.

Good mixers with young Dempseys include:

  1.  Convicts, regular

  2.  Convicts, pink

  3.  Curviceps

  4.  Firemouths

  5.  Keyhole Cichlids

  6. Acaras (various)

  7. Blue Acaras

  8.  Festivums

  9. Kribensis*

Good mixers with half-grown Dempseys include:

  1.  Jewels*, various color types

  2.  Latifrons

  3.  Porties

  4.  Rainbows

  5.  Black Belts (B)

  6.  Chocolates (B)

  7.  Friedrichstahlis (B)

  8.  Geophagus, various

  9.  Green Terrors

  10.  Other Jack Dempseys

  11.  Managuenses (B)

  12.  Ocellaris (B)

  13.  Oscars (B)

  14.  Red Terrors

  15.  Salvinii

  16.  Severums, Green

  17.  Severums, Gold

  18. Texas Cichlids

*not American but always sold as American.  

Species marked with a (B) grow large and belligerent enough to pose a threat to the life of Jack Dempseys.  Also note that we did not list Red Devils.  Unless considerably smaller, they are not good mixers with anything.

African Cichlids.  Oddly enough, you can mix Dempseys with African cichlids – for a while.  African cichlids ignore them until the Africans get about half grown.  We would not recommend this mix for most Cichlasoma (whatever) species.  Maybe convicts.

Provide Room.  As usual, the larger your tank, the fewer fights for territory you will see.  Losers of these squabbles in big tanks also have room to retreat, recover, and re-fight in the future.  If you have limited space, put a divider (or dividers) high on your shopping list.  

LA Pic
Dempseys rate fairly high on the smartometer.

LA Pic
Gold Dempseys don't look quite as smart.

 

The Pairs.  Adult Dempseys select their own mates.  You see typical sidling up to one another and undulating together, chasing one another around the tank, and lip-locking.  Lip-locking panics new fish keepers that have never seen it happen before.  The male and female lock lips and try to overpower one another -- just like on SkineMax.. 

Match Sizes.  Here’s where you prefer two future parents of about the same size.  Males tend to be larger and rougher.  Too large a male often winds up killing his prospective mate.  Try to keep them about the same size (within an inch or two).  Although some males will breed with females half their size.

They Decide.  No matter how carefully you pick your breeders, they will decide who breeds with whom.  Since mated pairs are not often on the market, most would-be Dempsey breeders select six or so fry and rear them together.  The process takes about a year.  (And never pick out all the biggest ones or you’ll get all males.)  If you’re in a hurry (this is America, isn’t it?), toss four six-inch specimens in a 30-gallon tank and be prepared to remove the non-breeders.  They will be the ones with the torn fins and missing scales, often lying on their side at the surface.  

Your Breeding Tank.  Give them a 20H or way larger tank.  If the male gets too rough, the female needs room to get away.  Provide at least one cave (the more bridal suites, the merrier).  Lots and lots of plastic plants really help provide cover.  Don’t decorate with expensive live plants.  Dempseys will redecorate to their own preferences.  Anacharis and hornwort bunches help absorb many waste products and keep their water healthier.  Provide other cover and a flat rock for the egg-laying site.

Plants?   In general, forget live plants.  Your Dempseys will uproot them and/or shred them.  Use plastic plants instead.  Weight them with lead strips.  Or smear tank sealer on their bases and roll them in dry gravel the same color as your tank gravel.  After they dry, toss them in and let the Dempseys re-arrange their furniture however they prefer.  (And they will re-arrange it.  Dempseys like to pile all their gravel at the front of their tank.)

Dither Fish.  Many breeders recommend adding a “dither fish” to encourage the parents to bond together against a common enemy.  A slightly smaller convict cichlid makes a good dither fish.  You want one they can’t kill too quickly.

Condition Them.  You can successfully condition Jack Dempseys on a variety of flake foods.  You increase your chances when you add higher octane foods to their menu.  But first, get off the one feeding per day habit.  Feed them small amounts often.  After you feed them flakes or pellets, give them small amounts of live or frozen foods to really plump them up and color them up.

No Plecos Allowed.  We get calls all the time about fish eggs “disappearing.”  They don’t see the parents eating the eggs.  They’re just gone the next morning thanks to their local algae-eating (and egg-eating plecostomus).  You won’t see him eat the eggs.  The parents are fierce protectors during the day.  He, however, works the night shift.  The parents never even know what happened.  

Artificial Rearing.  You can remove the eggs and use a slow airstone as a surrogate mother.  The eggs need a slow flow of water near them for the best hatching rate.  Most people consider it much more enjoyable (though less predictable) to watch the parents tend the eggs and herd the fry around.

LA Pic
Here's another dwarf blue Dempsey to prove we can afford two (just barely).

LA Pic
And here's a real Jack Dempsey to show you why people love Dempseys.

Fry Food.  Most baby Dempseys will eat finely crushed flake foods.  You get a better survival rate and faster growth with microworms and/or newly hatched brine shrimp.  It’s always fun to watch their bellies turn orange.  LA.

© 1996, © 2004, © 200LA Productions

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