A quick guide to setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium
There are many aquarists and fish keeping hobbyists interested in setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium, and for good reason: The African Great Lake is home to more fish species than any other lake in the world, including about one thousand separate species of cichlids. It represents a unique ecosystem that many aquarists find incredibly fascinating. The beauty of Malawi fish rival that of tropical marine fish in the range and vivacity of colours.
The specific term for an aquarium that is designed to mimic the conditions of a real-world location is, “biotope”. This kind of aquarium is highly rewarding for its keeper as it provides a unique view into the ecosystem that it represents. Keeping a biotope healthy, however, can be a complex process.
Water conditions for a Lake Malawi biotope
Lake Malawi’s water is alkaline in nature; it features a pH level ranging from 7.7 to 8.6. The water has a hardness level of GH 7 and KH 10-12. The tropical waters of this lake are generally warm, with a surface temperature of 24-29 degrees Celsius and a deep-water temperature of 22 degrees Celsius year-round.
The first step to setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is recreating these water conditions in your tank. This will require the use of high-quality testing kits for the water’s pH level and hardness.
Managing your water pH level
Keeping your water at the correct pH level is critical for setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium, and can be achieved using a material to buffer the pH level and keep it high. Crushed coral sand placed in the substrate or filter, crushed oyster shell, or live rock can do this for you.
Using rocks such as limestone will help buffer the pH level of your water and keep it at the desired amount, as well. Extra care should be exercised when changing the water, as your pH levels can change greatly during this procedure if the new water is not properly prepared beforehand.
Once your water is prepared, you are ready to begin gathering the necessary ingredients necessary to setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium.
Malawi biotope fish: cichlids
If you are interested in keeping a Lake Malawi biotope, chances are that you want to keep a community of cichlids. These beautiful fish are by far the most common inhabitant of Lake Malawi, and any Malawi aquarium should have quite a few.
There are two general types of cichlids in Lake Malawi: Mbuna, which are rock dwelling fish, and non-Mbuna, that live in the sandy areas of the lake and feature such species as the bright and colourful Peacock cichlid.
Some species of mbuna can be quite aggressive, especially the larger varieties. It can prove difficult to maintain peace and order between the species if they are not carefully chosen, with mysterious deaths occasionally happening. However, one mbuna species to consider is Labidochromis caerulus, also known as the “yellow lab” fish which is a relatively peaceful fish.
In general, aquarists who wish to keep a mixed Malawi tank are recommended to keep larger peaceful non-mbuna like the Peacock with smaller slightly aggressive mbuna fish. However, avoid cichlids that are too aggressive, or grow very large like Venustus. Furthermore, attention must be paid to the male female ratio. One male to three or more females. This will reduce the males over pestering the female and avoiding fights between rival males.
Choosing the right mix of fish is an art. Special attention must be paid to the right colour mix, temperament, age of fish and especially the size of the fish. In some species it is just the males that are colourful with other species both males and females are colourful. And the choice of fish must contrast well with the rockwork, sand and even with the other fish.
Your decision about which types of cichlids to house in your Malawi biotope should reflect the setup of your aquarium: A mostly Mbuna aquarium should feature numerous rocks for the fish to feel comfortable in and use as shelter, while Non-mbuna fish will feel much more comfortable surrounded by sand and lots of open water to swim about in.
It is also important to keep your aquarium relatively heavily populated. It is in the nature of Malawi cichlids to fight over territory more often when they have plenty of space and few competitors. A heavily populated tank is a notably more peaceful one for this species of fish.
Considering plants for setting up the perfect malawi aquarium
If you insist on keeping plants in your Malawi aquarium, the only commercially available underwater plant that is suitable for a strict Malawi biotope is Vallisneria spiralis, although Anubias and Java Fern can be suitable if you are willing to bend the rules of biotope keeping.
In general, Malawi aquariums have no need for plants with many keepers of this particular biotope do not add plants to their setup at all.
Setting up your tank
The size of your tank should reflect your needs regarding the amount of space that your fish need. It is important to remember that these fish tend to play nice with one another when they are in a more crowded tank.
A good rule of thumb for setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is to keep one fish for every 20 litres of tank capacity. A few more fish can be acceptable if you change your water more often— for example, 50% weekly.
It is recommended that you line the bottom of your tank with a plastic egg crate-style light diffuser along the bottom of your tank. This will help distribute the weight of the rocks you will need to line your tank with and protect the glass from the digging action of Mbuna cichlids.
In general, setting up a successful Malawi biotope comes down to choosing the right rocks, layering thin substrate of sand over the egg-crate bottom, introducing a healthy mixture of smaller mbuna and large, friendly non-mbuna, and balancing their habitat with two high quality filters.
The best way to filter a Malawi tank is using a dual-pronged approach. The best results are realised by combining an external power filter and an internal mechanical filter in your tank. This offers excellent biological and mechanical filtration, improving water circulation and oxygenating the water effectively, especially for a crowded tank.
How to choose the right lighting
The last essential consideration for setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is lighting. Fluorescent or metal halide lighting is preferable to other forms, and should be liberally distributed at a rate of 1 watt for every 2 litres of tank capacity.
Malawi cichlids respond best to subdued lighting. Overwhelming the fish with too much light can cause them to lose their lustrous appearance and spend most of their time hiding out under the aquarium rocks or in whatever shady place they can find.
If you follow this short guide correctly and take the necessary steps to ensure that your Malawi biotope is put together faithfully, you will be able to enjoy a realistic example of one of the most exciting and interesting freshwater lakes in the world from the comfort of your home.
Setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is an involving task, and it takes more involvement than a general freshwater community tank, but it can be a very rewarding experience for the ambitious biotope aquarist. With the help of this guide and numerous other web resources, your Malawi biotope can become a great success.