The dwarf cichlid aquarium
Often, aquarists are quick to dismiss cichlids as being too aggressive and territorial for their tanks that dig up the gravel and plants. However, if the aquarist instead explores the possibilities offered by dwarf cichlids, he will be amply rewarded. Dwarf cichlids, although closely related to their larger cousins, are much easier to care for and are far less aggressive to tankmates and each other than their larger counterparts.
Dwarf cichlid still have the parental instincts of their species, but are much easier to care for, especially in a large tank. If you are looking for a fascinating species of fish to keep, it is worthwhile to consider the benefits and fascinating behaviour that dwarf cichlids can offer.
The advantage of dwarf cichlids, compared to other cichlids, is that you can keep and breed dwarf cichlids in a smaller tank. Also, if you do have a larger aquarium, you get to observe the natural behaviour of a colony of cichlids or even a breeding colony.
Choosing the correct species
There are two major families of Dwarf Cichlids, categorized by their places of origin: South American dwarf cichlids and African dwarf cichlids. These two broad groups of species have different water requirements. So it is best to go for one group or the other. The Africans are better community fish. The South American species might be better suited to a species tank. Once you have made your choice, you can go on to choose particular species.
Apistogramma is the name for a genus of South American fish containing many dwarf species and is a great choice.
Kribensis, from West Africa, is a good beginners fish and quite popular among aquarists but maybe more suited to a community aquarium.
Blue Rams are another very popular species of dwarf cichlid from South America. They are as beautiful as they are friendly but can be difficult to keep and to breed. Bolivian rams, a close relative, are more hardy but not as beautiful.
Nanochromus Parilus, another African dwarf cichlid, is a beautiful and hardy species.
Dicrossus Filamentosus, a South American fish commonly known as the “Checkerboard cichlid” for its distinctive scale patterning, makes a great addition to tanks with acidic water.
Laetecara Curviceps, another South American species, is a timid and peaceful species that appreciates planted tanks.
My recommendation is that you concentrate on apistogramma.
Planning your dwarf cichlid aquarium
The first consideration for your dwarf cichlids will be getting the right water quality for them to thrive in. South American dwarf cichlids require reasonably acid water that is quite soft and relatively free from minerals. This means that reverse osmosis filtering is most likely necessary, unless your region’s tap water is particularly soft. The use of peat to slightly darken your water is also highly recommended.
The size of these fish allow aquarists to successfully keep them in nano tanks. A trio of dwarf cichlids will happily inhabit a 56-litre tank, for example. If you have a large tank of say more than 200 litres at your disposal then you can keep multiple species in the same tank. You can then observe some natural and interesting behaviours and interactions in the dwarf cichlid aquarium such as females herding their broods and competing for male attention within their respective territories.
In a large tank such as this, it is recommended that you keep only a few males and a higher number of females. Each of the males will carve out a large territory, and the females will keep a smaller territory within those of the males’ territory. With a suitably large and correctly aquascaped tank, fascinating mating behaviour can be observed and breeding can occur.
If you plan on breeding your dwarf cichlids, you will need to plan your breeding and spawning spaces carefully. Clay pots or rocky cave structures that are just large enough for the female to enter are ideal. Females will breed inside of these hideouts. Each female should also have adequate space within their respective territories: even good-natured dwarf cichlids can get protective of their fry.
Considering live plants
Your aquarium will benefit from the addition of plants. Most species of dwarf cichlid need plants in order to thrive. Your choice between African and South American species will influence the types of plants that you choose, since then pH level of your tank will need to accommodate the fish:
South American dwarf cichlids prefer lower pH levels, and will do best with Java moss, Java ferns, Amazon swords, Vallisneria, or Rotella.
African dwarf cichlids require higher pH levels. This would suggest plant choices such as Java ferns, Vallisneria, and Anubias.
Your dwarf cichlids will use plants as an important part of their lives, particularly if certain specimens become markers of territory between individual fish. If you are worried about the plants’ safety, dwarf cichlids do not uproot plants the way larger cichlids do, so you can rest assured that your plants and fish will thrive healthily together.
Aquascaping with rocks and driftwood
Dwarf cichlids are very sensitive to their surroundings. They will behave more naturally in aquascapes that resemble their natural habitat. For African species, this means that rocks will be a necessity that cannot be overlooked. South American species will need tastefully arranged driftwood, caves and some flat stones to interact with.
Since cichlids are territorial, individuals and pairs of fish are likely to use these aquascaping elements as markers that define their personal space and breeding grounds. South American species will generally find a shaded cave structure as a spawning site. It is important to use your driftwood to create some shadows in a convenient area of the tank. Also use the wood to block the line of sight between cave entrances. Dwarf cichlids will also seek out cave formations to hide in, so it’s helpful to provide some.
You can often help your dwarf cichlids establish acceptable territories by arranging your aquascape in such a way as to make certain zones purposefully theirs. If you know that your cichlid is a cave-dwelling variety, for instance, then keeping multiple small cave formations all over the aquarium will allow them to defend defined territories.
Feeding and care of dwarf cichlids
Most of the species should be fed on a variety of live food. Some of the hardier species may take to dried foods but still include live foods in the diet. Also frequent water changes are compulsory to keep the fish happy, at their best and breeding. Some of the species’ eggs and fry are susceptible to illness if the water is not pristine.
Dwarf cichlid behaviour
Keeping dwarf cichlids such as the popular Apistogramma species can be highly rewarding in a large, well-planned tank. The right combinations of dwarf cichlids will encourage one another towards constructive social behaviour and provide you with a tank that is as fascinating as it is beautiful.
One of the best ways to encourage dwarf cichlids to be more active and social is through the use of dither fish: active and energetic fish such as small rasboras that swim throughout the tank will encourage the dwarf cichlids to come out of hiding. The presence of dither fish can help reassure dwarf cichlids that there are no large predators about and increase peaceful tank sociability. They also give the young mothers something to defend the brood against.