In all Oreochromis species the male excavates a nest in the pond bottom (generally in water shallower than 3 feet) and mates with several females. After a short mating ritual the female spawns in the nest (about two to four eggs per gram of brood female), the male fertilizes the eggs, and she then holds and incubates the eggs in her mouth (buccal cavity) until they hatch. Fry remain in the female’s mouth through yolk sac absorption and often seek refuge in her mouth for several days after they begin to feed.

Sexual maturity in tilapia is a function of age, size and environmental conditions. The Mozambique tilapia reaches sexual maturity at a smaller size and younger age than the Nile and Blue tilapias. Tilapia populations in large lakes mature at a later age and larger size than the same species raised in small farm ponds. For example, the Nile tilapia matures at about 10 to 12 months and 3/4 to 1 pound (350 to 500 grams) in several East African lakes. Under good growth conditions this same species will reach sexual maturity in farm ponds at an age of 5 to 6 months and 5 to 7 ounces (150 to 200 grams). When growth is slow, sexual maturity in Nile tilapia is delayed a month or two but stunted fish may spawn at a weight of less than 1 ounce (20 grams). Under good growing conditions in ponds, the Mozambique tilapia may reach sexual maturity in as little as 3 months of age, when they seldom weigh more than 2 to 4 ounces (60 to 100 grams). In poorly fertilized ponds sexually mature Mozambique tilapia may be as small as 1/2 ounce (15 grams).

Fish farming strategies that prevent overcrowding and stunting include: 1) cage farming where eggs fall through the mesh to the pond bottom before the female can collect them for brooding; 2) polyculture with a predator fish, such as fingerling largemouth bass, at 400 per acre; and 3) culture of only males (monosex). All-male culture is desirable in ponds not only to prevent overpopulation and stunting but also because males grow about twice as fast as females. Methods of obtaining predominately male fish include: 1) manually separating the sexes based on visual examination of the genital papilla of juvenile fish (“hand-sexing”); 2) hybridizing between two selected species that produce all-male offspring (for example, Nile or Mozambique females crossed with Blue or Zanzibar males); 3) feeding a male hormone-treated feed to newly hatched fry for 3 to 4 weeks to produce reproductively functional males (“sex reversal”); or 4) YY male technology (currently under development and not yet a commercial option).

The sex of a 1-ounce (25-gram) tilapia fingerling can be determined by examining the genital papilla located immediately behind the anus (Fig. 1). In males the genital papilla has only one opening (the urinary pore of the ureter) through which both milt and urine pass. In females the eggs exit through a separate oviduct and only urine passes through the urinary pore. Placing a drop of dye (methylene blue or food coloring) on the genital region helps to highlight the papilla and its openings.

Figure 1. Fins and genital papilla of the Nile Tilapia.

Feeding behavior and nutrition requirements

Tilapia ingest a wide variety of natural food organisms, including plankton, some aquatic macrophytes, planktonic and benthic aquatic invertebrates, larval fish, detritus, and decomposing organic matter. With heavy supplemental feeding, natural food organisms typically account for 30 to 50 percent of tilapia growth. (In supplementally fed channel catfish only 5 to 10 percent of growth can be traced to ingestion of natural food organisms.)

Tilipia are often considered filter feeders because they can efficiently harvest plankton from the water. However, tilapia do not physically filter the water through gill rakers as efficiently as true filter feeders such as gizzard shad and silver carp. The gills of tilapia secrete a mucous that traps plankton. The plankton-rich mucous, or bolus, is then swallowed. Digestion and assimilation of plant material occurs along the length of the intestine (usually at least six times the total length of the fish). The Mozambique tilapia is less efficient than the Nile or Blue tilapia at harvesting planktonic algae.

Two mechanisms help tilapia digest filamentous and planktonic algae and succulent higher plants: 1) physical grinding of plant tissues between two pharyngeal plates of fine teeth; and 2) a stomach pH below 2, which ruptures the cell walls of algae and bacteria. The commonly cultured tilapias digest 30 to 60 percent of the protein in algae; blue-green algae is digested more efficiently than green algae.

When feeding, tilapias do not disturb the pond bottom as aggressively as common carp. However, they effectively browse on live benthic invertebrates and bacteria-laden detritus. Tilapias also feed on midwater invertebrates. They are not generally considered piscivorous, but juveniles do consume larval fish.

In general, tilapias use natural food so efficiently that crops of more than 2,700 pounds of fish per acre (3,000 kg/ha) can be sustained in well-fertilized ponds without supplemental feed. The nutritional value of the natural food supply in ponds is important, even for commercial operations that feed fish intensively.

In heavily fed ponds with little or no water exhange, natural food organisms may provide one-third or more of total nutrients for growth. In general, tilapia digest animal protein in feeds with an efficiency similar to that of channel catfish, but are more efficient in the digestion of plant protein, especially more fibrous materials.

Tilapia require the same ten essential amino acids as other warmwater fish, and, as far as has been investigated, the requirements for each amino acid are similar to those of other fish. Protein requirements for maximum growth are a function of protein quality and fish size and have been reported as high as 50 percent of the diet for small fingerlings. However, in commercial foodfish ponds the crude protein content of feeds is usually 26 to 30 percent, onetenth or less of which is of animal origin. The protein content and proportion of animal protein may be slightly higher in recirculating and flow-through systems.

The digestible energy requirements for economically optimum growth are similar to those for catfish and have been estimated at 8.2 to 9.4 kcal DE (digestible energy) per gram of dietary protein. Tilapia may have a dietary requirement for fatty acids of the linoleic (n-6) family. Tilapia appear to have similar vitamin requirements as other warmwater fish species. Vitamin and mineral premixes similar to those added to catfish diets are usually incorporated in commercial tilapia feeds. The feeding behavior of tilapia allows them to use a mash (unpelleted feeds) more efficiently than do catfish or trout, but most commercial tilapia feeds are pelletized to reduce nutrient loss. In the absence of feeds specifically prepared for tilapia, a commercial catfish feed with a crude protien content of 28 to 32 percent is appropriate in the United States.

Continue to Tilipia: Life History and Biology (part 3)

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