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.

Rocks for your aquarium

planted rocky malawi aquarium

How to select the right rocks for your aquarium

While many aquarists around the world have no problem discovering their favourite varieties of fish, finding them, and then creating the perfect underwater environment for their fishkeeping hobby, determining how to select the right rocks for your aquarium can be a different story altogether. Many beginning aquarists are surprised to learn how important rocks can be in a marine environment.

Why are rocks important for your aquarium?

See plantless aquarium

Rocks in Malawi tanks

As you probably are already aware, your aquarium is essentially a miniature ecosystem that requires you to manage a precise chemical balance in which your fish can thrive. Thanks to water’s erosive qualities, the rocks in your aquarium will play a minor, but recognizable role in the “hardness” of your water— that is, the level of dissolved minerals in your water.

“Hard” water contains a higher level of dissolved minerals such as magnesium and calcium than “soft” water does. Obviously, the primary source of these dissolved minerals is the tap in your home, but the rocks that you introduce to your aquarium habitat can change the water hardness over time. Depending on the fish you wish to keep, this can be desirable or dangerous.

Additionally, well-placed and well-chosen rocks offer a beautiful decor that gives the tank a serene sense of beauty. Fish also love them, as the varied texture and landscape gives them lots of places in which they can hide and take shelter, just like their natural habitat would.

Aquascaping is enhanced with the addition of carefully selected rocks of various colours and textures. Make this choice based on the colours of the fish you plan to keep and whether the aquarium is to be planted or not.

Determining which rocks are safe

When it comes to finding out how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, its important to choose safe rocks, as certain types can be poisonous for your fish. There are several methods available to determining which rocks you can use:

• Purchasing aquarium-safe rocks. If you purchase aquarium-safe rocks from a quality pet store or aquarium supply centre, you can be relatively certain that the rocks will not gravely affect the hardness or pH level of your aquarium water.

If you choose to go this route, it is important that you purchase from trusted vendors, as some pet shops have been known to cut back on quality control and put unfit rocks up for sale.

• Testing outdoors rocks and gravel. Many aquarium enthusiasts and fish keepers like to take home interesting-looking rocks from riverbeds or other natural sources and introduce them into their aquariums. This approach requires testing, since outdoor rocks can contain high levels of calcium and other materials that will change the chemical content of your water and affect your fish. Granite, slate and sandstone are relatively inert and have little or no effect on the water chemistry. Also clay, although not strictly a rock, is a good source of rock-like material. Clay pots, pipes and slates can be used adding a nice brown colour to the landscape.

How to test outdoors rocks for aquarium use

If you have found some interesting rocks that you would like to introduce to your aquarium, there are two main ways to test them for use in your aquarium:

• The vinegar test. Vinegar reacts with calcium by fizzing and foaming on contact. If you pour a few drops of vinegar on your rocks and you see that they begin to react in this way, you should not use the rocks in your aquarium. This is an indicator of high levels of calcium. Rocks that do not react with vinegar can generally be used, but a more reliable test may be in order if you would like to be perfectly certain.

• The standing test. If you have some rocks or gravel that you would like to introduce to your aquarium and would like to test them securely, the best way is through the standing test. Let the rocks stand for a week in a bucket of the same water that you use for your aquarium, and then test the water hardness and pH level.

If you see that the water quality has not significantly changed, then you can reasonably expect that the rocks are aquarium-safe. Naturally, longer testing times will provide more detailed results, and help eliminate any doubt about the quality of the rocks or gravel you have found. When figuring out how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, the standing test represents the best way to be absolutely certain, although it takes time.

Also after adding new rocks it is wise to keep an eye on the fish over the following weeks to see if they show any sign of distress. Some rocks may very slowly release poisons into the water over the long term. If the fish do show some signs of distress, try removing the rock and do a 50% water change to see if the distress is relieved.

Freshwater vs. saltwater considerations

As you would expect, there is a marked difference between the types of rocks ideal for freshwater tanks and those that saltwater tanks can safely house. If you are a beginning aquarist determining how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, you need to base your choice of rocks on the type of water you are using.

While freshwater tanks are significantly simpler to manage, saltwater aquarists have additional concerns about maintaining the salinity of their tanks’ water. Given that some rocks can have poisonous effects, and that most will affect the water quality in some way over time, it is important to choose carefully and test your rocks.

An additional option that can help maintain excellent water quality, appropriate salinity, and balance a tanks’ pH level is live rock. Live rock is especially useful in saltwater tanks, but is also recommended for certain freshwater tanks such as the Malawi biotope, where it also helps create a decorative atmosphere in place of plants that may not be present.

What is live rock?

See live rock and live sand

Live rock is a bit of a misnomer, since the material in question is neither a rock nor alive. Live rock is made up of pieces of coral skeleton that have broken off of reefs and are collected for use in home aquariums. These coral skeletons become natural biological filters, helping the nitrogen cycle take place effectively.

In this case, the material that you are introducing to your aquarium is designed to affect the water composition, but in a positive way. Live rock introduces helpful bacteria, algae, and tiny invertebrates that can improve the quality of your aquarium water. Live rocks can raise the salinity and the pH level of your tank water. If you are looking for attractive solutions on how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, live rock is an important element to consider.

As an added benefit to saltwater aquarists, live rock can form the foundation of bright and colourful coral colonies that distinguish saltwater aquariums from their freshwater cousins. Many ambitious saltwater aquarists choose these rocks for their aquariums specifically for those species of bright coral to grow.

Additional considerations for your aquarium rocks: gravel

Since gravel often forms a significant element of any aquarium’s substrate base, it should be given special attention due to the additional concerns over its small size and numerous individual particles. Gravel offers a very natural appearance for your tank. The colour chosen must blend in naturally or pleasantly contrast the rock work. Examples are grey rock work with yellow sand or salmon pink rockwork with grey gravel.

Large-grained gravel allows waste to penetrate the substrate and stick unpleasantly to the bottom of the tank. This, in turn, will affect the water quality and the health and lifespan of your fish. For this reason, many aquarists prefer to use small-grained gravel or even sand. If you insist on using large-grained gravel, you will have to carefully and efficiently clean your tank regularly in order to maintain ideal water conditions.