Bolivian Ram Ultimate Guide: Keeping, Feeding, and Breeding

I feel sorry for the Bolivian Ram. These stunning little fish have always been overshadowed by their more colorful cousins, the German Blue Rams. To be honest, I didn’t appreciate how beautiful they were until I kept my first group.

Eating Daphnia
Eating Daphnia

Bolivian Rams are colorful, peaceful and make an excellent addition to almost any community tank setup.

Overview of the Bolivian Ram

Bolivian Rams are small but colorful members of the Cichlid family. They originate from the Madeira basin in Bolivia and Brazil, inhabiting slower flowing streams, small lakes, and flooded areas of the forest.

The Bolivian Ram (Mikrogeophagus altispinosus) was first described in 1911 by John Diederich Haseman. The name Mikrogeophagus comes from the Greek (mikrós), meaning ‘small’, and Geophagus meaning ‘earth eater’.

Unlike their cousin the German Blue Ram, Bolivian Rams haven’t been bred into a range of different color morphs. They are usually just sold in their natural color form.

Bolivian Ram Characteristics

Common Name:Bolivian Ram, Butterfly Ram, Bolivian Butterfly Cichlid
Scientific Name:Mikrogeophagus altispinosus
Family:Cichlidae
Origin:Bolivia and Brazil
Tank Distribution:Lower and mid-water
Adult Size:2.75″ – 3.25″ (7cm – 8.5cm)
Life Expectancy:5 – 7 years
Care Level:Easy
Minimum Tank Size:20-gallons (75 liters)
Breeding Method:Egg layer
Temperature:75°F – 82°F (24°C – 28°C)
pH:6.0 – 7.5
Hardness:16 – 180ppm

Bolivian Rams Origins

Bolivian Rams Origins Map

Bolivian Ram Habitat

Considering it has been well over 100 years since this species of fish was first described, there is surprisingly little research about its natural habitat.

Bolivian Rams are believed to mainly inhabit slower flowing steams as well as small lakes, oxbow lakes, and flooded areas of the forest. These areas typically have sandy river beds with lots of vegetation growing.

Typically, rivers and streams in this area have lots of overhanging vegetation and the waterways themselves contain roots and fallen branches with lots of decaying leaves laying across the sandy river bottom.



Are Bolivian Rams Wild Caught or Captive Bred?

The vast majority of Bolivian Rams available in local fish stores are captive bred. Bolivian Rams are bred in large numbers on fish farms both in the US and in the Far East. It is fairly rare to find wild-caught Bolivian Rams for sale.

Bolivian Rams are imported in their thousands every year, with an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Bolivian Rams being sold each month.

Bolivian Ram General Description

Bolivian Rams are small fish measuring only around 2.75″ to 3.25″ (7cm to 8.5cm). They are colorful fish, yet their colors a subtle, certainly more subtle than some of their Dwarf cichlid cousins.

The Bolivian Rams body is mainly a blue to silvery color with gold patches on most of their heads and across their dorsal fins. All of their fins are edged in deep red to pink color with their pelvic fins being almost completley red. They also exhibit some blue spots across their tail and fins.

Bolivian Ram

Bolivian Ram Tank Setup

Bolivian Rams are not overly demanding when it comes to setting up the aquarium. To show their best coloration, they want to feel safe and secure, and we can easily achieve this by providing them with lots of places to hide.

Ironically, the more hiding places you provide for your Bolivian Rams, the more likely they are to spend time out and about, not hiding.

Bolivain Ram tank size

For a small group of Bolivian Rams, maybe a group of 2 or 3, a 20-gallon (75 liters) tank will work really well.

If you hope to keep a larger group, say 5 or 6 Bolivian Rams with a group of Tetras of maybe some Dwarf Gouramis, then a 30-gallon (113 liters) tank that measures 3′ (90cm) wide would be a great choice.

I currently keep a group of 6 Bolivian Rams in a 30-gallon tank with around 60 Neon Tetras. It works well and it is a tank that is always full of color and movement.

Substrate in a Bolivian Ram tank

Bolivian Rams have the scientific name Mikrogeophagus which roughly translates as ‘little earth eater’. Bolivian Rams have this name thanks to their desire to sift through the sandy river bed looking for tasty worms and small crustaceans to eat.

Anything edible they come across is eaten and excess sand is passed either through the gills or spat back out the mouth.

Knowing this information helps us choose a suitable substrate. For me, this sand that I ordered from Amazon has worked so well. It looks natural and my Bolivian Rams spend all day sifting through it.

If you only have regular aquarium gravel, you can use it of course. It won’t do the Rams any harm, but you won’t get to enjoy them carrying out some of their natural behavior.



Decorations in a Bolivian Ram tank

For me, it is the natural look all the way, so I choose to put roots, rocks and pieces of aquarium safe wood in my Bolivian Ram tanks. However, I don’t think the Rams themselves really care.

If you want to add a sunken pirate ship or a SpongeBob Pineapple house, go with whatever you like, just provide the Bolivian Rams with as many different hiding spots as possible.

The more hiding spots they have, the more safe and secure they will feel, meaning they display more colors for you to enjoy.



Do Bolivian Rams need plants?

Personally, I think the colors on Bolivian Rams really stand out when they are against a green background. That doesn’t mean you have to use live plants. I have used fake plants like these ones in a number of my tanks, and after a few weeks, as they get a bit of algae on them, they start to look really good.

With that said, I prefer to use live plants whenever and wherever I can. I have listed some of the plants I currently have in my Bolivian Ram tanks, but just about any live plants will work well.

I have found plants like Cryptocoryne Wendtii work especially well because the leaves are held up on stems perhaps 4″ to 6″ (10cm to 15cm) off the aquarium substrate, meaning the Rams can swim in and out of the cover provided by the plants.

The picture below shows one of my 155-gallon (585 liters) tanks that is almost exclusively planted with Cryptocoryne Wendtii.

My 155-gallon tank planted exclusively with Cryptocoryne Wendtii

Best filter for a Bolivian Ram tank?

Deciding which filter is best for a tank very much depends on how large the tank is. If you are looking to keep your Bolivian Rams in a 20 or 30-gallon tank, then I would suggest you use a hang-on-back filter.

In my experience, hang-on-back filters provide a perfect balance between keeping the aquarium water clean and clear, without having to spend a fortune. I also find hang-on-back filters really easy to service.

Heating a Bolivian Ram tank

Bolivian Rams want the water temperature to be around 75°F to 82°F (24°C to 28°C). The best way I have found to keep my tanks at this temperature is with a submersible aquarium heater.

Recently I have been moving all my heaters over to the E-series heaters which are made by Fluval. They are a little more expensive, but I find them really accurate, plus they have a digital display on the front telling me the current water temperature.



Lights in a Bolivian Ram tank

The colors on Bolivian Rams are subtle, but they look amazing when under a proper aquarium light. The blue spots on their tail and fins are barely noticeable most of the time, but when the light hits them at the right angle, POP!

I have found the Aquasky light to be superb. Not only does the Aquasky light grow plants really well, but it makes the colors on the Bolivian Rams stand out.


Bolivian Ram Water Parameters

In their natural habitat, Bolivian Rams come from waterways that are warm, clear, and slightly acidic. Although the chances are that the Bolivian Rams you see for sale in your local fish store are many generations removed from the wild, they still seem to fair better when we try to match the aquarium to their natural habitat.

  • Temperature: 75°F to 82°F (24°C to 28°C
  • ph: 6.0 – 7.0
  • Hardness: 16 – 180ppm

If you are unsure of your aquarium water parameters, invest in a good quality water test kit. I currently use the API Master Test Kit as it measures pH, Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate. I have found it to be the most accurate test kit for the money. You can check the current price of the API Master Test Kit on Amazon.com here.


What do Bolivian Rams Eat?

Bolivian Rams are omnivores. This means in the wild they will eat both meaty foods and vegetation.

As mentioned above, Bolivian Rams spend much of their day sifting through the sand on the bottom of the river, or in the aquarium, looking for small worms, crustaceans or other edible morcels of food.

In the aquarium, we can feed our Bolivian Rams many of the different commercially available foods on the market. I have had good luck feeding my Bolivian Rams all of the following foods;

In addition to dry foods, I try and feed my Bolivian Rams as much live or frozen food as I can. Some of the live or frozen foods I give them include;

  • Bloodworms
  • Brine Shrimp
  • Daphnia
  • Mosquito Larvae
  • Cyclops


How Often Should You Feed Bolivian Rams?

When it comes to feeding my Bolivian Rams, actually, when it comes to feeding all the fish in my fish room, I believe feeding little and often is better than feeding a large quantity in one go.

I try to feed my Bolivian Rams 3 or 4 times a day, every day if I can. I usually give them pellet food in the morning, followed by flake food in the afternoon. In the early evening, I feed live or frozen food, depending on what I have available, and if time allows I feed my Bolivian Rams a fourth time before the lights go out.

Feeding little and often is easier on the fish’s digestive system as well as easier on the filters as the fish waste is spread out over a whole day. Plus, every time I feed I get to interact with my aquarium, giving me more opportunities to see if there is anything wrong with the fish or the equipment in the tank.



How to Breed Bolivian Rams

Many people do not realize just how easy it is to breed Bolivian Rams at home. In fact, if you are looking for some ideas on fish to breed for profit, Bolivian Rams might be a good candidate.

Sexing Bolivian Rams

Bolivian Rams are sexually dimorphic, meaning you can tell males from females just by looking at them. They are not as easy to sex as say a guppy, but once you know what you are looking for it is possible to tell who is who.

The main indicators to sexing Bolivian Rams are size, fins, and color. Male Bolivian Rams grow slightly larger than females, although females do tend to be plumper, especially when close to spawning. Male Bolivian Rams also tend to have slightly extended dorsal fin rays, especially the first 3 or 4 rays. Finally, males are often more colorful than females.

Bearing all the above in mind, it can still be very difficult to say with a level of certainty that a given fish is male or female. Often you may have to wait for them to pair up and see which fish lays the eggs and which one fertilizes them.


https://youtu.be/eZNoQLn880Q

Conditioning Bolivian Rams to spawn

To get the best spawning results from your Bolivian Rams it is important to make sure they are in the best condition possible. This is called ‘conditioning’ the fish.

In my experience, the best way to bring Bolivian Rams into breeding condition is to feed them lots of live and frozen foods.

I would go so far as to say, for the week or two leading up to spawning them, only feed your Bolivian Rams live or frozen foods. Bloodworms and mosquito larvae are both high in protein, so make excellent conditioning foods.

Egg production and spawning take a toll on both fish, so making sure they are in optimal health before the spawn is the key to producing lots of healthy offspring.

Bolivian Ram spawning tank setup

Whilst Bolivian Rams will often happily spawn in the community tank, to get the best results possible, consider setting up a dedicated spawning tank that you can move the Bolivian Rams to.

By giving your Bolivian Rams a dedicated spawning tank you seriously reduce the risk of the parents eating their own babies, which they may do if they are constantly disturbed in the community tank, and you increase the number of babies that are likely to survive.

I have found the best setup for a spawning pair is a 10-gallon (38 liters) tank with a sandy substrate. The water should be soft and slightly acidic. Filteration should be powerful enough to keep the water clean, by gentle enough it doesn’t suck up any baby fish. I would recommend a sponge filter (I use this one in my breeding tanks at the moment as it doesn’t require an air pump).

I would also provide lots of line of sight blocks in the form of pieces of wood or live plants. During spawning, there may be occasions the female wants to get away from the male. Also, the Bolivian Rams are more likely to feel comfortable with lots of hiding places rather than if they were spawning in a bare tank.

Bolivian Ram spawning

Assuming you have a pair of Bolivian Rams that are mature and have been conditioned, and assuming you have placed them in a dedicated spawning tank, and they feel happy and comfortable, your Bolivian Rams should decide to spawn.

Bolivian Rams that are preparing to spawn will dance around one another. The male will show his colors off to the female in an attempt to impress her. One or both fish may try to liplock the other and they will both spend time biting or cleaning the flat stone or area they wish to lay their eggs.

The male Bolivian Ram may also dig a small pit and dance around that. The pit will be used as a safe place to move the developing baby fish to once they have hatched.



Once both fish have decided they are ready to spawn, the female will swim in lines across the chosen spawning rock, laying between 100 and 300 eggs in neat rows. The male will follow closely behind her fertilizing the eggs.

Spawning Bolivian Rams can be very aggressive towards other fish, so if they are still in the community tank, be aware!

Bolivian Ram eggs

After the two fish have finished spawning, both parents will take care of the developing eggs, frequently fanning water across them with their tails or picking debris off the eggs with their mouths.

A word of caution: Inexperienced Bolivian Rams may eat their first few broods of eggs. As with many cichlids, they often take two or three attempts before they realize they should look after the eggs rather than eat them. If you panic and remove the eggs everytime before they can eat them, they may never get the hang of it. Be prepared to have to wait for 3 or 4 spawns before you get your first batch of fry.

After 2 or 3 days the eggs will hatch and they become Wigglers, which are essentially small dots with tails that don’t stop wiggling. During this stage, the baby fish consume the goodness in their eggs sacks which are still attached to their bodies.

Bolivian Ram babies spend around 5 to 8 days as wigglers, after which they will become free-swimming. At this point, the babies will require feeding. The best foods I have found to feed my Bolivian Ram fry are microworms and newly hatched Brine Shrimp.



Bolivian Ram Tank Mates

Bolivian Rams are super peaceful and the list of possible tank mates could be almost endless. Below I have listed some of the fish I have kept with Bolivian Rams. Because I have tried these combinations I can speak with first-hand experience.

The list below is not meant to be exhaustive.

  • Neon Tetras
  • Platys
  • Bristlenose Plecos
  • Cherry Barbs
  • Angelfish
  • Harlequin Rasboras
  • Cardinal Tetras
  • Rummy Nose Tetras
  • Guppies
  • Mascara Barbs

Neon Tetras

Neon Tetras

A large group of Neon Tetras with half a dozen Bolivina Rams is one of the all-time favorite tanks in my fish room. I swear the colors of the Rams were twice as bright thanks to the Neon Tetras.

Much like Bolivian Rams, Neon Tetras are really peaceful, plus they like almost identical water conditions and eat the same types of foods. This is a dream combination.

Platies

Platy Fish

Platies are livebearers, meaning they give birth to live, free-swimming baby fish. One of the reasons I love platies is because you can start with just 2 fish (1 male and 1 female) and within a few months you have a tank full.

Platies are also very hardy, very peaceful and they will eat the same foods as you feed to your Bolivian Rams. Platy fish also come in a wide range of colors including orange, yellow, blue, and a mixture of all 3!

Bristlenose Plecos

Bristlenose Plecos

Anyone who has been following my work over the last few years knows how much I love Bristlenose Plecos. I think I spend about 20 minutes at every fish club talk I give going on about them. I genuinely believe just about every community fish tank should have at least one Bristlenose Pleco.

Bristlenose Plecos are peaceful, hardy, and will keep your tank almost spotlessly clean of algae. They even clear up any leftover food that makes its way to the aquarium floor.

Cherry Barbs

Cherry Barbs
Cherry Barbs

A small group of Cherry Barbs living with your Bolivian Rams will bring color and movement to your tank. Providing the Cherry Barbs are kept in a group of 6 or more they will mostly keep themselves to themselves and won’t cause your Bolivian Rams any issues.

The bright cherry red color of the Cherry Barbs will really set off the colors of your Bolivian Rams.

Angelfish

Angelfish

I realize some may see Angelfish as a controversial choice of tank mate for Bolivian Rams, but I have tried it and found it worked really well. I kept 10 Angelfish in a 180-gallon (680 liters) tank with a group of Bolivian Rams and hundreds of tetras. I never saw any aggression from the Angelfish and two pairs of the Bolivian Rams even spawned in the tank.

Harlequin Rasboras

Harlequin Rasboras

Harlequin Rasboras are one of those fish that are never the stars of the show but always look amazing. I have them in so many of my tanks. Harlequin Rasboras are very peaceful and the way they loosely school back and forth across the tank brings a wonderful sense of movement to any aquarium.

When you see Harlequin Rasboras in the store, their colors are always fairly dull and drab. I can assure you, once you get them home and settled, their colors really start to pop, especially in a planted tank.

Cardinal Tetras

Cardinal Tetras

Cardinal Tetras were one of the first fish I ever kept nearly 30 years ago, and my love for them has been solid ever since.

Cardinal Tetras are very peaceful and their colors will really set off the colors in the Bolivian Rams. Cardinal Tetras will love living in the same water conditions as the Bolivian Rams and they will eat all the same foods. If you set up a 20-gallon (75 liters) tank with a pair of Bolivian Rams and a small group of Cardinal Tetras, you will not be disappointed.

Rummy Nose Tetras

Rummy Nose Tetras

To be fair, everything I have said above about Cardinal Tetras would apply to Rummy Nose Tetras. I have only really included them on my list as this is another setup I have in my fish room. My 55-gallon tank with 30 Rummy Nose Tetras, 5 Bolivian Rams, and a small group of Ember Tetras is a pleasure to watch, and another tank that gives me very little trouble. This is a winning combination of fish

Guppies

Guppies

I know everyone who has been in the hobby for more than 5 minutes turns their nose up at Guppies because they are ‘a beginner fish’, but I have to say, I love Guppies. They are peaceful, very, very hardy and a riot of color. Plus, you start with a male and 2 females today, and in 6 months you have hundreds of fish, all with a slightly different tail pattern.

If you keep Bolivian Rams with your Guppies, you will find the Bolivian Rams do a great job of keeping the Guppy population under control.

Mascara Barbs

Mascara Barbs

Mascara Barbs are another fish that simply isn’t seen as often as they should be. If you can track them down, this peaceful member of the Barb family will be a stunning addition to any tank.

Although their colors are subtle, once they settle into a tank, and if you pair them with a bright schooling fish like Neon Tetras, the Mascara Barb will put on a show for you second to no other fish.



Common Bolivian Ram Pests and Diseases

In my experience of keeping these stunning fish, I have not found them to be especially susceptible to pests and diseases. In fact, I have always found them to be rather hardy.

With that said, at some time or another, we all come up against a few common pests and diseases that can affect and even kill our fish if we don’t deal with them. Below I have listed some of the most common problems I have found in my time with fish keeping.

  • Ich (Whitespot)
  • Fin Rot
  • Internal Tapeworms
  • Dropsy

Ich (Whitespot)

Goldfish with Ich

Ich is probably the most commonly seen disease in any freshwater fish. It is extremely prevalent in the hobby.

The main symptom of Ich is the white spots (which give Ich its other common name) that usually start on the fins and tail but then spread across the rest of the body if treatment is not forthcoming.

The spots are in fact not spots, but rather cysts that form when the parasite burrows under the fish’s scales. Once under the scales, the parasite feeds off the fish for several days, after which time it falls off and drops to the aquarium floor. Once on the substrate, the parasite sits for a couple more days before dividing into many other parasites, each of which goes looking for a new host fish.

The Ich parasite is only vulnerable to treatment when it is in its free-floating form before it attaches to a host fish. The best treatment I have managed to find for Ich is Ich-X which is made by Hikari.

If you are based in Europe and you don’t have access to Ich-X, try eSHa 2000.



Fin Rot

After Ich, fin rot is probably the next most common issue fish keepers are faced with.

Fin rot is caused by a bacterial infection that takes hold of a fish’s fins, often after a fish has been fin nipped by one of its tank mates. The bacteria is usually present in tanks where water quality is poor.

Fin rot starts off with the very ends of the fins or tail having small pieces missing. As the bacteria spread the fins become raggedy, red, and sore. Left untreated fin rot can be so severe the fish actually loses its fins and tail, usually prior to dying.

The good news is fin rot is completely preventable by carefully monitoring and regulating water quality. Tanks that receive a 10% to 25% water change each week very rarely suffer from fin rot.

Fin rot is another disease that is treatable if treatment starts early. I have had good success treating fin rot, and in fact, a number of other bacterial infections, using Maracyn (see more about Maracyn on the Aquarium Coop website). If you are in Europe, eSHa 2000 is a really effective treatment for bacterial infections.

Internal Tapeworms

Internal tapeworms are the silent killers of tropical fish, often because there are few to no symptoms prior to death.

Tapeworms live in the fish’s digestive system where they consume the goodness from the fish’s food before the fish has a chance to. Bolivian Rams with internal tapeworms can literally starve to death, even though they eat every day.

The best advice I can give to anyone who is concerned about tapeworms is to treat all your fish with Paracleanse by Fritz. Paracleanse kills tapeworms and other internal parasites.

I use Paracleanse on all my fish when they are in quarantine prior to going into my tanks.



Dropsy

Dropsy is the name given when fish swell up, usually as a result of fluids building up inside the fish’s body. Dropsy is usually the result of kidney failure. There is little that can be done for Bolivian Rams suffering from Dropsy. Euthanasia is the kindest thing for the infected fish.


About the Author

I’ve been keeping, breeding, and showing tropical fish for nearly 30 years. Over that time I’ve done it all! I’ve had great success and I’ve made some really foolish mistakes (like the time I bought an Asain Walking Catfish). Read more…
Richard James
Editor

Article Resources:

https://www.tfhmagazine.com/articles/freshwater/mikrogeophagus-altispinosus-a-colorful-butterfly-for-the-aquarium

https://www.seriouslyfish.com/species/mikrogeophagus-altispinosus/

https://fluvalaquatics.com/us/e-series/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikrogeophagus_altispinosus

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