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.

The plantless aquarium

Upright driftwood and stones on gravel base

How to approach plantless aquarium design successfully

Upright driftwood and stones on gravel base
Upright driftwood and stones on gravel base

Plantless aquarium design can be very enticing both for beginning aquarists and for more experienced ones, but making your plantless aquarium a success depends on a number of key factors that need to be kept in mind during your aquarium set up and thereafter as well. Plantless aquariums are often considered barren-looking by hobbyists in the aquarium trade, but with the right aquascaping approach they can offer their owners a uniquely serene, zen-like sense of beauty.

There are two essential prerequisites to successful plantless aquarium design: handling the technical aspects of healthy water conditions and filtration without the plants’ help, and designing your aquarium with an eye for sublime beauty in such a way that you do not feel the need to hide your aquascape behind plants.This requires maximising the artful use of other aquarium materials. The first order of business is making sure that your technical needs are taken care of.

Step one: compensating for a plantless tank with filters and algae control

The first two issues that you should consider with plantless aquarium design are the important role that plants play in the nitrogen cycle and in algae control. Fortunately, both of these issues can be resolved reasonably well through careful planning. Plants can make some aspects of your aquarium easier to take care of, but in the long run you can enjoy a successful tank without them as well.

entangled driftwood on gravel base
entangled driftwood on gravel base

When it comes to filtration, you want to maximize the ability for beneficial bacteria to grow in your tank since you will not have the benefit of ammonia-absorbing plants to rely on. This could mean increasing the size of your filter, using a rocky gravel substrate, or both. Gravel will provide additional surface area for the necessary bacteria to grow, which can help out immensely.

Gravel must be more carefully chosen to add visual interest. There are various grain sizes of gravel to consider and many colours to choose from. The texturing effect and colour of the gravel compared to the rocks and the fish should provide a stunning contrast.

Sand is also a worthwhile substrate to consider, although maintenance and cleaning is generally easier with gravel. Most fish tend to prefer sand as a more natural substrate and some require it in order to begin breeding and spawning. In either case, your substrate should be rather thin, since you do not have to worry about giving anchor to any plant roots.

discus in an amazon biotope with driftwwod to simulate roots
discus in an amazon biotope with driftwwod to simulate roots

Also, without the delicate needs of plants to worry about, you can set up your filter for more water flow. This can help ensure that the tank water does get thoroughly filtered without the need for plants, and will help with algae control as well.

Dealing with algae in a plantless tank

Despite all the time you spend on making your plantless aquarium design look great, if you leave your tank near a sunny window for a week you can expect a full-blown algae bloom to occur. In order to protect your tank from algae, you will need to maintain a consistent algae cleaning and light reduction program. Using a UV sterilizer may help here.

Prevent algae here

Even without a UV sterilizer, frequent water changes and careful monitoring of your water’s nutrient levels will be important to avoid encouraging algae growth. You can also invest in algae controlling chemicals, but these should be considered a last resort, as they may affect the fish and may not be necessary in the long term, unless your algae situation really gets out of hand.

large stones on sand make a simple but pleasant design
large stones on sand make a simple but pleasant design

Paying attention to your lighting when planning your plantless aquarium design is important for this reason. Without plants, you have no need for specialized halide lights and indeed this kind of lighting will encourage algae blooms to occur regularly, putting your fish in danger and turning your beautifully serene tank into an unsightly green cesspool. If you notice algae getting out of hand, you can always “black-out” the aquarium for a few days. Then resume lighting at reduced levels and duration.

Low maintenance floating plants

If you wish to forgo the purist approach then the use of floating plants may represent a great way to get the benefits of plants without actually planting anything. Some aquarists may consider this cheating, and no longer call the aquarium a strictly plantless one, but the decision is yours. Considering the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, if you feel satisfied with using floating plants then it is an acceptable and low maintenance way to enjoy your tank.

Step two: making your plantless aquarium design look great

Once your aquarium is functioning smoothly without plants, it is time to consider how you can set up the tank to stop it looking so stark and barren.

The key to aquascaping successfully, is in paying more attention to your tank’s hardscape- the rocks, driftwood, sand or gravel and any ornaments that you use to give your tank its own unique identity. Providing a rocky background can be a great way to bring character to an aquarium. Many aquarists use plants to hide the unattractive equipment of their aquascaping job. In a plantless aquarium this is not an option.

Using rocks as decor

steeped rocks can be an effective way to create height
steeped rocks can be an effective way to create height

Rocks can make an excellent foundation for a plantless aquarium design, and owners of Malawi biotopes have been using them for years to great effect. Most Malawi biotopes are plantless by design because rocks are an integral part of the Malawi lake ecosystem. When setting up your tank using rocks, you will want to use many different shapes and sizes of rock, to mimic a natural looking environment.

Malawi aquarists emphasise height in their use of rocks. Not just selecting tall pieces of rock but actually stacking rocks on top of each other to achieve height. However, care must be taken that such structures are safe. Falling or toppling rocks can crack the glass and even land on fish.

Often, a rock-based plantless aquarium design will feature a very large centrepiece of some kind. A particularly ancient-looking stone of great size can lend an air of gravity to the entire tank and give you that zen-like sense of the sublime that makes plantless aquariums so special. Multiple rock formations can also be very interesting, especially in carefully laid scenic patterns.

various striated rocks and pebbles on gravel
various striated rocks and pebbles on gravel

Rocks, stones and pebbles can be constructed upon sand to make a desert like aquascape reminiscent of a real life desert. Stones and pebbles can also be used to form cave structures, valleys and hill formations. The possibilities are endless.

Using rocks in your aquarium here

Making the most of driftwood

Driftwood is another incredibly popular element of plantless aquarium design. By layering choice branches of driftwood throughout your aquarium, you can achieve a natural beauty that reminds you of the jungle without needing any distracting greenery getting in the way. Amazon biotopes will frequently use driftwood and sometimes are plantless.

The key with layering your driftwood successfully is in finding suitably gnarled pieces of it. Straight driftwood can be used to great effect sometimes, but is better to used gnarled old branches that curve and twist. They can be used throughout the tank in an inspiring way. Rather than going for a centrepiece like you would with rocks, often the best approach for driftwood is to distribute your pieces naturally throughout the tank in order to mimic nature.

Other decorative items

Of course, there is no need to feel like you are limited to choosing between driftwood and rocks. These are just two of the most popular decorative items commonly used to great effect in world-class plantless aquariums. For your own plantless aquarium design, your imagination is the limit. Some aquarists enjoy putting model miniatures in their tanks, and others decorate theirs with hand-blown glass.

If you have an interesting, out-of-the-box idea for your plantless aquarium, you are encouraged to explore that idea. Many beautiful aquaria have been created around this concept: take that idea, put it in a box, fill the box with water and fish and enjoy your own unique plantless aquarium design. Examples being say stonehenge, the parthenon, the pyramids or Atlantis.

Setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium

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.

See also Malawi biotope

and tips for keeping African cichlids

and Peacock cichlids from Malawi

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

malawi fish with rock backgrounds
malawi fish in public aquarium

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.

 

 

mixed malawi fish tank
crowded mixed malawi fish in rocky aquarium

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

aquascaped malawi aquarium
sandy rocky planted 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.

Conclusion

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.