New Study on Cichlid Fish: Protecting Babies or Snacking on Them


Raising babies can be exhausting and the chore even works up an appetite. According to a new study published in Biology a central African cichlid fish, Astatotilapia burtoni, commonly called Burton’s mouthbrooder—sometimes consumes more than three-quarters of their own eggs and/or baby fish.

Mouthbrooding is common among fish, particularly cichlids, also popular freshwater species for aquarium pets. After their eggs are fertilized, A. burtoni moms will shelter them in their mouths for roughly two weeks to protect them from predators.

As explained in a Natural Geographic story, after the eggs hatch into tiny larval fish, the babies venture outside their mother’s mouth, but scurry back in when there’s danger. It’s a great start for the young fish, but this takes a toll on mama fish, who can’t breathe properly or eat during this time.

The new study shows, however, that the suffering moms can counter the heavy burden  by consuming some baby fish, a behavior called “filial cannibalism.”

And it turns out, according to researchers, not only does mom fish enjoy a meal, she has a healthy one. The antioxidant boost allows them to more quickly be in condition to spawn again. Who knew? For this cichlid species, eating some of your babies is like enjoying a multivitamin.

In other ways, this cichlid species are parents of the year. Funny how that works out. Some fish drop their eggs and drop out of sight. By sheltering their babies in their mouths, these fish moms are protecting them with their life and are really quite intimidating to other fish at this time. Until they desire a snack, that is.