Maintaining a healthy livebearer aquarium

guppies and platies in a community tank

Healthy water leads to healthy fish

Diagnose and treat Livebearer illnesses here.

The secret to keeping healthy livebearers is in keeping the water they live in healthy and suitable for them to live in. The major element in maintaining healthy water is the continuous removal of pollution from the water.

the basic air powered sponge filtered
the basic air powered sponge filtered

Where does aquarium pollution come from?

Pollution in the livebearer aquarium comes from the fish themselves. Livebearers are continually producing urine and occasionally pooping in their own environment. Also pollution can come from any uneaten food left to rot in the aquarium. Occasionally from the rotting of a dead fish or other water borne creature can cause pollution as well as dead plant material.

You can certainly remove much of the pollutants from the water by siphoning them away and disposing of it. However there is much that will be missed and so you need a filter to remove the remaining pollutants.

A much better automated way of cleaning the fish waste is by relying on biological filtration known as cycling.

Maintaining the correct environment for a livebearer aquarium

Female Black Molly
Black Molly female

Besides keeping the water clean, to maintain a healthy livebearer aquarium you need to maintain temperature control and provide lighting as well as providing suitable water conditions.

Electrical safety in a livebearer aquarium

Most of the equipment used to maintain a healthy livebearer aquarium is powered by electricity. And as you may well know electricity and water make a dangerous combination. So, you must observe certain electrical safety rules as follows:

  1. Only buy and use electrically certified equipment from a recognised aquarist supplier
  2. Buy a safety cut out cable that will cut all electricity to the aquarium when there is a fault.
  3. Unplug all electrical devices in your aquarium when you are working inside the aquarium water or you risk electrical shock. Don’t forget to turn it all on afterwards.

Livebearer fish tank selection

hawaii-platy-variatusThe first thing you need to buy when keeping livebearers is a fish tank. This ideally should be an all glass aquarium bonded together with silicone. Plastic aquariums although lighter are easily scratched and ruin the view of your fish.

Fish need a good supply of dissolved oxygen in the water to breathe. This oxygen comes through the surface of the water. The area of the surface of the water determines how much oxygen will be available for your fish’s use. In other words, the larger the area, the more oxygen and so allowing you to keep more livebearers. Measure about 5 litres of water for every fish as a bare minimum. A 100 litre tank should allow you to keep up to 20 livebearers.

Remember that water in large aquariums can be very heavy and must be placed on a solid floor that can support the weight. If the floor is concrete then it should be fine. However with floor boards you will have to find out where the supporting joists are underneath the floorboards and place your stand on top.

Because livebearers are surface swimmers they tend to be jumpers. This means that livebearers occasionally make a leap to freedom and can end up dead on your living room carpet. So, you need to buy a tight fitting lid to prevent this.

Filtration in the livebearer aquarium

mickey-mouse-platyThe most important piece of equipment in eliminating pollution in your aquarium is the filter.

Sponge filters

A surprisingly good and effective filtration system is the sponge filter powered by an air pump. Sponge filters are not very powerful but you can use 2 or 3 of them together in the one aquarium. A great advantage of the sponge filter is that they are low maintenance and also they are cheap to buy. All you need to do to clean them is to squeeze them out in a bucket of aquarium water and then swirl them about until most of the excess dirt falls off. Do not remove all the dirt as the biological bacteria that filter the fish waste live in the dirt. Removing the excess dirt will unclog the filter and allow this bacteria to breathe and grow.

Contrary to popular belief, the most important job a filter has to do is not to remove particles and dirt from the water. No, the most important job of a filter is provide a breeding ground for bacteria that break down decaying organic matter into harmless substances.

It takes between 4-6 weeks for the bacteria in a filter to mature to the level where it can remove all the decaying pollution effectively. It is very important that you take care to not kill off the bacteria in the filter. Washing the filter in tap water that contains chlorine will kill the bacteria. Certain medications can also kill of the bacteria. And finally turning off your filter for more than an hour can kill off most of the bacteria in your filter.

Box filters

guppies and platies in a community tank
guppies and platies in a community tank

Box filters can also be used to filter the aquarium water. These are more powerful but cost more than a sponge filter. They may contain an internal sponge too. The disadvantage is that they are difficult to clean and maintain.

External filters

There are even more expensive and powerful external filters that may hang off the back of the aquarium. These may use various filtering material.

All filters ultimately rely on the same method to filter and that is by passing water over a colony of bacteria that have grown inside the mulm that has collected in the filter.

Other methods of removing waste

Despite filters doing such a marvellous job of biologically breaking down waste matter into less harmful waste products, you still need to do some clean up yourself. At least once a week you will have to use a siphon device to sift through the gravel stirring the dirt up to be siphoned into a bucket and thrown away. Siphon away any dead plant material as well.

Uneaten food should be siphoned five minutes after feeding. Dead fish and other creatures should be removed as soon as seen.

Lighting is another important piece of equipment.

Livebearers enjoy bright lighting conditions. However, bright lighting may encourage excessive algae (which is microscopic plant life). Algae is usually healthy for your livebearers who will eat it, but it is an eyesore and may choke off your plants.

The solutions to prevent or remove algae is to keep your aquarium away from direct sunlight and also to reduce the number of hours per day your aquarium lighting is on for.

There are 3 types of bulb that you might use in your livebearer aquarium.
a) incandescent bulbs
b) fluorescent tubes
c) Mercury vapor lamps

Incandescent light bulbs (ie home light bulbs) can be used in fry rearing tanks and quarantine tanks. For most aquariums you should use fluroescent tubes that are widely available and inexpensive. Although expensive, mercury vapor lamps can be economical in very large aquariums where 1 vapor lamp bulb would replace many fluorescent tubes. Vapor lamps are very bright. One vapor lamps is 4 times brighter than a fluoresent tube.

Gravel or sand? The choice is yours.

If you use gravel then you can put plants directly into the gravel with a tablet fertiliser pushed in near the roots. The gravel should be 2 inches deep.

Sand is not so good for plants because it is too compact. Sand may also trap dirt and compact creating stagnant “dead-spots” that may foul the water. To lessen this risk use a shallow layer of 1 inch or less. It is recommended that you place plants in their own little plant pots above the sand.

In the wild livebearers swim in waters where the base is light coloured, so sand is quite comforting for them. You could also buy a light coloured gravel. The lighter coloured base brings out the best in your livebearer’s colours.

Before using gravel or sand in your aquarium you must rinse out dust by placing some sand or gravel a bit at a time in a bucket and running tap water through while swirling it with your hands until the water runs clear.

Plants for a livebearer aquarium

Thriving plants remove the waste products created by the fish. Indeed the plants feed off the decomposed fish waste matter.
Plants also add visual naturalness to an aquarium that is comforting to the fish. The plants create hiding places for females and young livebearers. And finally plants also provide a source of fresh food for your ever hungry livebearers.

Choose plants that like your tap water’s composition in terms of ph and hardness and are hardy aquarium plants. Plants such as Java moss, Java ferns, Cryptocorynes and vallisneria are ideal choices for livebearer aquariums.

What is the correct conditions for livebearers?

Not only do you have to maintain clean water for your aquarium, you also have to provide water of the right composition. Tap water is normally within range of suitability for livebearers. The main factors in water composition are ph level and hardness level of water which can be tested using a test kit bought from your aquarium store. If your tap water has a reading of ph 6.5-8.4 and the hardness reading is above 8dh then that should be acceptable for most livebearers. If the ph and hardness fall out of this range then you need to perform the laborious process of adjusting the water condition. This is best done by having a 200litre barrel and preparing large batches of water at a time.

What exactly is harmful about fish waste? When fish poop and urinate where does this go? What happens to it?

When fish poop and urinate this waste matter decomposes slowly releasing ammonia, which is quite poisonous. In a mature aquarium with a mature filter bacteria breaks down this ammonia into nitrite. In a new aquarium with no bacteria this ammonia builds up and slowly poisons the fish.

How to create a mature filter – cycling.

Nitrite is also poisonous but a second set of bacteria digest nitrite and convert it into nitrate which is relatively harmless. Nitrate is absorbed by plants as a fertiliser.

With this in mind it is essential to buy and use a test kit that measures ammonia and nitrite levels in a new aquarium. You will need to check the ammonia and nitrite daily until they come down to 0.0. In a new aquarium you will have to do daily water changes of between 10-20%. This will reduce the pollutant levels. You have to carry on the daily water changes until the readings hit 0.0 at which point your filter’s bacteria will be mature enough to cope. If you get a particularly high reading during this process do a bigger water change and stop feeding for a day or two.

With all this new found knowledge you should now be in a position to keep your livebearer aquarium healthy in the long term.

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.