Top 10 tips on African Cichlids

crowded malawis

Top 10 tips for a successful African cichlid tank

African cichlids on youtubeTip number one. Watch a lot of cichlid videos on youtube. With many expert hobbyists giving first hand experience of setting up a cichlid aquarium, which species to buy, maintenance of a cichlid aquarium through to breeding the various, mbunas, peacocks, haps, Tanganyikans and other topics. Always be prepared to learn more because there’s tons of information in video format.

Tip number two. Over filtrate. Always buy a filter that is twice as powerful as the recommended size. Your tank has to be super clean the reason is because most Malawi tanks are overcrowded. Malawi aquariums are over stocked to spread aggression. Malawis are big eaters and cichlids are constantly producing waste you need to over filtrate. Running two filters simultaneously in the same tank is also a great idea. Canister filters are a must. You need to stuff them full of good filter material to do both mechanical and biological filtration.

Tip number three. Overstock your tank. Overstocking will crowded malawishelp spread the aggression between the fish so that no individual fish gets singled out. Even then you will still see aggression, where one fish will want to eliminate another particular tank mate. It is something that you have to expect when keeping Africans. But do all you can to keep that kind of behaviour down. To reduce it to a minimum. over stocking your tank, rearrange the rock scape every two weeks, and be quick to act when you see one fish getting constantly bullied by another. If it looks like one fish has picked out another fish for destruction remove the aggressor or the victim immediately.

Tip number four. Act quickly when you see a fish getting beaten up or looking ill. If you see mouth locking, tattered fins or hit marks on the side of the body. Immediately remove the weak or injured fish. If you leave it too late and remove a harassed fish you will often find that the fish will still end up dying either the same day or a few days later.

yellow bags in bagTip number five. Always add 4 or more fish to an aquarium at a time. Adding just one or two fish to an established aquarium results in the new fish entering other fishes already established territories and so will get beaten up.

Tip number six. Spend less on the filter canister and use the money saved to buy good quality filter media. And again having two canisters will enable you to service one canister while the other keeps running doing its job of filtering the impurities from the water and avoiding ammonia and nitrite spikes. And if
one filter fails you will still have one filter running until you can fix the broken filter or buy another one.

Tip number seven. If you skip one day a week of feeding the fish or possibly two days a week you will notice that your fish are more healthy and active. Also they will be less prone to getting Malawi bloat which is common in Malawis which are always eating. They are supposed to be eating mostly algae. So when they eat dried foods which are a more concentrated food than they find in the wild, you are actually overfeeding them. Also the water will be cleaner because less eating results in less fish waste.

Aquarium water changeTip number eight. Change 40-50% water changes every week. Try and set up an automatic top up system. Use a long hose system of some sort. When you add tap water use a water conditioner. It is wise to overdose rather than underdose on water conditioner. The easier this task is the less likely you are to skip it. Carrying buckets of water up and down in your living room every time you do a water change is likely to cause an accident at some time.

Tip number nine. Research on YouTube on the particular species of African that you intend to buy. You need to find out whether your particular fish is overly aggressive or passive or even a carnivore. Or the fish may grow much bigger than you can cope with. Always be prepared to move on a fish that is not suitable for your aquarium. Some fish that are beautiful and small when young can become nasty monsters that quickly outgrow your aqurium.

sulphur head peacockTip number ten. Don’t be too obsessive over getting everything exactly right. This is a hobby that is meant to be enjoyed so relax and don’t be too worry if the tank is not too perfect. You don’t have to be overly precise. Remember Malawis are strong fish that are mostly immune to things like ich.

Lastly an overall tip is to always chat with other hobbyists on the forums. Ask questions. Answer other people’s questions. Share your experiences with other hobbyists.

The aulonocara peacock cichlid aquarium

The aulonocara peacock cichlid aquarium

all male peacock aquarium
all male peacock aquarium

If you have previously kept a Malawi cichlid tank and want a change or are considering setting up a new one, then you may consider setting up a peacock cichlid aquarium. Rather than having a wide range of species from lake Malawi, concentrating on just peacocks will give you an aquarium full of colour. The most remarkable fish from lake Malawi are the Aulonocara species, commonly known as peacock cichlids. There are 22 different peacock species known at present – all with brilliant colours. Add to that the fact that most peacocks are less aggressive than mbunas and you have your recipe for a successful and colourful aquarium.

Types of peacock cichlid aquariums

There are three basic choices when it comes to setting up a peacock cichlid aquarium. Each of the following three choices comes with specific advantages and drawbacks:

  • All-male tank
  • Mixed species breeding colony
  • Single species breeding colony
all blue male peacock cichlid from lake malawi
all blue male peacock cichlid from lake malawi

Understanding which of these three options suits you best requires you to identify your main goal with the tank itself. If brightly coloured fish is your only consideration, then an all-male tank would be ideal, provided that your tank is large enough for them to create several distinct territories. An all male tank means choosing male peacocks from several species. An all-male tank precludes your fish breeding. To breed your fish you will need to set up separate female breeding tanks but be sure not to confuse which female you use for breeding because the females of the different peacock cichlids look pretty much the same. The all male aquarium is a display aquarium.
 

Single species and mixed species peacock cichlid aquariums

While an all-male tank is certainly the simplest and most colourful option, breeding is one of the most fascinating behaviours that peacock cichlids engage in, and creating the right environment for them to do so, will be hugely rewarding. A single species tank is the simpler of the two, since you will not have to deal with inter-species aggression or interbreeding. You can also get away with a smaller aquarium, but it will be less interesting. And you have the further problem of choosing which single species to include in your aquarium.

male aulonocara jacobfreibergi - yellow jake
male yellow peacock cichlid aulonocara jacobfreibergi – yellow jake

Just like the peacocks they are named after, you will find that the females of any of these species are less colourful than the males. While it may be tempting to add more males than females to your setup, this is unnatural for a peacock cichlid colony and will result in stress and territorial disputes. The ideal distribution is one or two males with a larger group of females, perhaps 5 or more females.

One of the benefits of a single species breeding tank is that you can turn it into a breeding colony that lets you examine and observe the entire life cycle of your fish, their fry, and later descendants as well. By keeping a single species of peacock cichlid in your tank and taking good care of them, they will be able to raise some fry naturally without requiring you to set up separate breeding tanks and raising the fry yourself. However, to maximise the spawn you will need to remove the fry or brooding male to another tank.

The mixed peacock tank allows you to create a biotope of lake Malawi. Mixed species tanks, however, are not likely to make efficient breeding colonies because of interspecies competition. Your choice of species for this kind of tank will have to be carefully chosen in order to minimize stress, aggression, and the risk of interbreeding.

Choosing aulonocara peacock cichlid species for a mixed tank

aulonocara rubenscens red peacock cichlid male and female
aulonocara rubenscens red peacock cichlid male and female

If you would like to enjoy the multiple colours and differing behaviours of peacock cichlids in a mixed species tank, you will have to choose species that can get along together. Luckily peacocks are less aggressive than mbunas so you have a head start. The males are usually only aggressive when defending their own territory. The key to choosing your selection of peacock cichlids is in choosing species with a wide variety of colouration: Different species with similar colouration will see one another as breeding rivals, which will cause fights and interbreeding.

Size can also play a role in interspecies aggression between these fish. Species such as the peaceful Long Nose Peacock (Aulonocara Rostratum) are significantly larger than most other members of their species, for example. A fish of this size is unlikely to view a much smaller specimen such as a Ruby Red Peacock (Aulonocara Rubescens) as a threat. In fact a single, large male may become, “king of the tank” and settle disputes between the other fish as well.

male yellow peacock cichlid
male yellow peacock cichlid – aulonocara hansbaenschi

Varying the fish sizes can also help ensure that interbreeding does not occur. Females of all the Peacock cichlid species tend to look similar and may mate with dominant males of other species to create hybrid fish. Hybrids are generally undesirable and should be avoided if you would like to maximize the colouration and good health of your fish. A mixed tank featuring fish with greatly varying colours and body size will help reduce the risk of interbreeding. For example where the female of one species is brown and the female of the other species is silver then interbreeding should not occur.

When choosing which species to place in your aquarium you should remember that each species has several colour variations depending on which part of lake malawi they come from. Having different colour variations of the same species will result in interbreeding.

Breeding peacock cichlids

Click here for in depth article on breeding peacock cichlids

Peacock cichlid care

male orangle blotch peacock cichlid
dominant male orange blotch peacock cichlid

Once you have spent some time researching which fish and set up you want, you will want to spend some time researching the aquascape that your fish will be living in. The more accurate and natural-looking the environment for your fish, the less stressed will be your fish in the long run. For peacocks, there are two basic choices of aquarium layout either a sandy area or a rocky area with caves. In a larger tank you can of course have both.

Making the environment work requires researching into the origins of your specific species. For a single-species tank, obviously, you should attempt to replicate the original environment as close as possible. For a mixed species tank, however, you may need to provide a kind of hybrid zone for the separate territories of your fish.

“Jakes” of the species Aulonocara jacobfreibergi, for example, are primarily cave-dwelling fish that prefer rocky aquariums with lots of hiding spaces. Mixing this species with a sand-dwelling northern peacock ,such as Aulonocara stuartgrantii, might be a poor compromise, unless you have a large enough tank to provide two large zones within the tank for each of them to inhabit. In fact, it is recommended that any mixed species tank be as large as possible for this reason.

male aulonocara ngara - flametail red peacock
male aulonocara ngara – flametail red peacock

If you have followed the above guidelines, you should have a successful peacock aquarium. The various species of peacock will peacefully live together in the aquarium without stress. This will enable the male peacocks to display their best colours with fins proudly spread. When this has been done properly, you will have an aquarium that will rival a typical marine aquarium for its beauty and colour. The reds of the rubens peacock, the blues of the stuartgrantii peacock and the yellows of the baenschi peacock will give a brilliant contrast of colours. Sit back and enjoy your fish with a sense of pride.

Lake Malawi biotope aquarium

Malawi biotope aquarium with algae on rocks

Lake Malawi biotope

See also perfect Malawi Aquarium

and Breeding Malawi

Malawi biotope aquarium with algae on rocks
Malawi biotope aquarium with algae on rocks

Reasons for creating a Lake Malawi Biotope

Now more than ever, is a good time to set up a natural biotope of Lake Malawi. For instance, there is a lot of information on the behaviour and environment of most species inhabiting Lake Malawi. Which means we can recreate conditions in the aquarium, that are very close to those found in Lake Malawi.

Another reason is that with the discovery of oil in Lake Malawi, the ongoing destruction of the habitat in and around the lake is increasing. This is causing the near extinction of many species of fish and plants. How does setting up a Malawi Biotope aquarium help this, you may ask? In conservation, it is only species that people are aware of that get saved. And so if many aquarists set up a Lake Malawi biotope then what better way of showing what beauty will be destroyed by showing off their aquariums. The press can be invited to see the natural beauty of fish from Lake Malawi and told about which species are facing extinction in order to raise awareness and save the lake.

A final reason is that the fish can be observed in something that approximates their natural environment. The fish will of course be happier and you, the observer, will get to see the full range of natural behaviours and interactions between the fish and their environment. The fish will naturally try to inhabit the same niche in the biotope aquarium that they would normally inhabit in the wild, instead of being forced to lump it with other species that they would normally avoid.

How faithful a Malawian biotope can be created?

Recreating a Lake Malawi Biotope that is absolutely accurate down to the`smallest detail is an impossible task. But we can go a long way to recreating something that very closely resembles the lake. We can also very closely recreate the same water parameters, lighting, rocks and sandy base. Recreating the muddy parts of the lake would requre a very large aquarium, such as a public aquarium. So is not really feasible in the home aquarium. Luckily there are lots of sections of lake Malawi that are just rocks and sand, just rocks mostly or just sand mostly. These we can recreate in the aquarium.

Different approaches to building a Malawian biotope

There are possibly two approaches to recreating the biotope. The first way is to base it around the fish species in your possession or that you intend to buy. Then it would be a matter of researching to find out which environment your fish live in and if they are compatible. Then you would have to recreate a biotope that best accommodates your particular set of fish.

The second approach is to have a look at many pictures of lake Malawi in order to choose a scene that you particularly like. Then recreating that scene in the aquarium. Once that scene has been created then it would be a matter of finding which species would comfortably fit in your biotope and going out to buy them.

If you have species that inhabit different environments within the lake, then you need a very large aquarium to try and accommodate them all. Lake Malawi divides into two areas mostly with an open sandy region broken up with a few scattered rocks and a dense rocky area with many hiding places consisting of caves and crevices.

Aquascaping your Malawi biotope aquarium

Typical hobbyists biotope aquarium
Typical hobbyists biotope aquarium

The base is going to be a layer of sand of about 3 inches in depth. Most normal sands are fine, even crushed coral sand should be fine. However, wash well because sand creates more cloudiness than gravel.

Your rock choices are limestone and sandstone. The sand comes from the sandstone in the lake. Limestone is present in the lake also and gives the lake its ph and hardness. The sandstone can be the golden type or a grey type. Choose types of various sizes with smoothed edges. Algae will also grow quite well on these types of stone.

Arrange the stones in your aquarium so that caves, crevices and hiding places are created. Leave an open space of sand in the front of the aquarium. Scatter a few smaller rocks around the sand but separate from each other.

The rocks at the back need to be stacked up along the back so that they reach the surface and even break the surface of the water in places. To ensure the safety of your glass and fish, use silicone to glue rocks together to create a stable rock formation.

Plants and other creatures

planted rocky malawi aquarium
Atypical planted rocky malawi aquarium with sand substrate

Besides the fish there will be algae and small insects and invertebrates. Since many species from lake Malawi feed off snails then including snails in the aquarium is a good idea. Try apple snails that are native to lake Malawi or snails that are similar to those of lake Malawi such as snails of the genus bulinas. Obtain snails that look and behave similarly that can live in hard water.

Most mbuna species feed off the algae growing on the rocks and the micro organisms growing in the algae. In the sand will be worms and other insects that the Auloconara species(peacock) feed off. Trying to find suitable creatures that will live, grow and reproduce in the sand is a difficult task. You risk the creatures dying and polluting the sand and the aquarium. In the wild it would be these creatures that would dig through the sand that prevents the sand in the wild from compacting the way it does in the aquarium.

Insects found in lake Malawi include water bears, daphnia, cyclops. Create a separate culture of these and feed the fish. These will be native food for your Malawi fish.

There are few plants in lake Malawi so you do not have to have any plants in the aquarium. But valisneria and hornwort are a possibility that do occur in lake Malawi. Plant singly and sparsely.

Which fish to have in a Malawian biotope

Malawi biotope typically found in public aquariums
Malawi biotope typically found in public aquariums

Mbunas are perfect for the rocky parts of the biotope. One or two species will quickly set up home and create territories within the rocky structures, each fish with its own little cave or crevice. Aulonocara species like open waters above sand but not too far from rocks. One or two species will be great for the open, sandy areas. They feed off insects that they can find in the sand. The aggressive mbunas will only rarely venture out from their rocky area while the Aulonocara will avoid the rocks.

In a large enough aquaria with distinct areas the two groups of fish will approach each other and there will be aggression but the fish usually retire to their own habitat.

If your aquarium is not too large then you will have to settle for one group or the other. If you settle for auloconara then you shouldn’t have a large rocky formation. A smaller rocky set up is better for them. Aulonocara do like to swim in open spaces. However, aggression between the fish means that they too need hiding places.

Finally, it is an aquarium so run it like one

You can buy Malawi salts to recreate the exact water found in the lake. However, don’t just add it to tap water. Tap water already has some hardness and minerals which you will have to take into account. SInce you are creating a biotope you should use a reverse osmosis filter to remove all minerals from your tap water then add your Malawi salts to get the correct hardness and ph. For tap water you will obviously have to reduce the amounts of Malawi salt per litre. This is best done by testing your water after adding a half dose to tap water. If it comes out too hard reduce the amount of salt used. If not hard enough increase the amount of salts.

You need good quality lighting that will encourage rock algae without causing an algae bloom. Also, too bright a light will spook the fish. In lake Malawi the waters are not pristine and there is a little murkiness there. This is where most aquarists depart from the strict biotope by having pristine water.

The ecosystem however needs some way to operate the nitrogen cycle without plants. This means that you will have to have powerful biological filters that have a high turnover of water and a filter media with a large surface area for the nitrifying bacteria to grow on.

Water changes are also a necessity. While some may consider this as cheating, you may want to consider the real lake Malawi. There is an inflow of fresh water from the Ruhuhu river. And the lake is vast giving a lot of scope for de-nitrification.

If you have followed these guidelines, the end result should be a pleasant aquarium full of colourful fish. It should look like a piece of lake Malawi. So, sit back and enjoy your hard work.