Maintaining An African Cichlid Aquarium
Whether you’re just starting out in the aquarium hobby, or you have been keeping fish for years, African cichlids are among the most fascinating creatures that we can keep in a home aquarium. They rank among the most beautiful fish in the world with their eye popping colors that span every color of a rainbow. African cichlids have earned the reputation of being very hardy fish that exhibit intriguing social behaviors amongst themselves and with their keepers. These wonderful fish are sure to bring many years of intrigue and enjoyment to any aquarist as long as they are properly cared for.
As with any fish, African cichlids will do best when they are provided with ample room. Starting with the largest aquarium that is within your budget and able to fit within the desired location will save you money in the long run and prevent many frustrations that are all too common to many new aquarists. Cichlids are territorial by nature and will quickly stake a claim to their favorite area within the aquarium. The extra space will allow individuals down the pecking order to find a place of their own and also provide them with areas to escape if they become harassed. Probably the greatest benefit of having a larger aquarium is better water quality. It takes twice as long for nitrogenous compounds to double their value as the water’s volume is doubled. For example, if it takes one week for a 20 gallon aquarium to increase NO3 (nitrate) by 10 ppm, then it would take two weeks for a 40 gallon aquarium to increase NO3 by 10 ppm, assuming both aquariums have an identical bio-load. Smaller African cichlids such as the shell dwelling species of Lamprologus and Neolamprologus from Lake Tanganyika can be comfortably maintained in a 40 gallon aquarium or less, but I strongly suggest that a 75 gallon be the smallest size if you plan on keeping adult mbuna, peacocks, or haplochromines. Only juveniles of these species should be kept in smaller sized aquariums for grow out purposes.
Maintaining excellent water quality is a must if African cichlids are to remain healthy, display their best coloration, grow properly, and exhibit their social behaviors. Water filtration on a continuous basis is paramount if the water is to remain free of toxic compounds, oxygenated, and crystal clear. There are many options available to hobbyists today which can accomplish this task. In the past under gravel filters were the staple in filtration for cichlid aquariums. However, they become less effective over time as detritus builds up underneath the filter plate or plates. If you do decide to use an under gravel filter, then I recommend using reverse flow technology to force water down the riser tubes. This will greatly improve under gravel filtration by providing more oxygen to the bacteria and keeping the space under the plates cleaner. Two inches of aquarium gravel or crushed coral will provide ample room for the necessary bacteria to colonize. Fine sands should never be used for under gravel filters.
Internal sponge filters are also very popular for many applications. They are inexpensive and can be used very effectively for filtering water mechanically and biologically. Some models even have cartridges that can be attached for chemical filtration. Sponge filters are mainly used in breeder tanks, but multiple and larger units have been effectively used in display aquariums.
Hang on power filters or H.O.B.’s (hang on the back) are a good choice for filtering an African cichlid aquarium. These are commonly used today, and there are many models to choose from. They are relatively inexpensive and can be serviced easily. Multiple units can be used together to increase filtration capacity. H.O.B.’s must be selected properly in order to maintain good water quality. As a general rule I recommend a minimum turnover rate of 5.5 times the aquarium’s volume of water per hour for a moderately stocked African cichlid aquarium when using a hang on power filter. For example, a 40 gallon aquarium would need a unit that has a flow rate of 220 gph (gallon per hour). For a heavily stocked aquarium I recommend a minimum turnover rate of ten times per hour for hang on power filters.
Canister filters and sumps are the best choices for filtration and are what I recommend for long term success. Flow rates aren’t as critical when these types of filters are used, because they are able to hold a much higher volume of media, as well as different types. These two filters are customizable and can go longer intervals before maintenance and cleaning are required. When selecting media for canisters and sumps, always use the manufacturer’s recommended amount as a minimum for a moderately stocked African cichlid aquarium. More media can be added as the bio-load increases.
There are three types of media for filtration… mechanical, chemical, and biological. Mechanical filtration is used to remove solid matter and particulates from the water column. Chemical filtration comes in several different forms, but the most common are activated carbon and synthetic polymers. Chemical media removes foul odors (phenols), discoloration (tannins), harmful chemicals, and in some cases dissolved organics. Some aquarists don’t utilize chemical media in their aquariums, which is understandable in some setups. However, I highly recommend its use when maintaining an African cichlid aquarium. My favorite chemical media products are Seachem’s Matrix Carbon, Seachem’s Purigen, and Boyd Enterprise’s Chemi-Pure, Chemi-Pure Elite, and Chemi-Pure Blue.
Over the last couple of decades there has been a vast amount of new biological media or bio-media to hit the market. Bio-media is used to harbor the bacteria that will naturally occur in our aquariums within several weeks to a month after initial set up. These bacteria are responsible for removing the compounds of ammonia and nitrite which are extremely harmful to our fish, especially at the higher pH levels that African cichlids “prefer”. African cichlids produce waste in the form of ammonia through feces, urea, and respiration. The first type of bacteria to develop within the aquarium is called nitrosomonas. They utilize the ammonia as a food source and produce nitrite as their waste. The second type of bacteria to develop within the aquarium is called nitrobacter. They utilize the nitrite as a food source and produce nitrate as their waste. This process is known as “nitrification” and is the first part of the “Nitrogen Cycle”. Nitrate is also harmful to fish at elevated levels, so it is important to keep its level in check. Most of the bio-media available today only provide for nitrification. However, in recent years there have been several types of media available in the aquarium trade that provide for the completion of the Nitrogen Cycle. These types of media provide the living spaces for another type of bacteria called anaerobes that will remove nitrate by converting it into nitrogen gas. The nitrogen gas safely leaves the aquarium through the water’s surface and into the atmosphere. This process is called “denitrification”, and the media is typically labeled as denitrification media. I have had tremendous success using Seachem’s Pond Matrix. Due to its large size Pond Matrix is best used in sumps and canister filters. Regular Matrix is a smaller diameter and better suited for the smaller hang on power filters.
Even the most highly advanced filtration system won’t maintain good water quality for very long if proper aquarium husbandry (maintenance practices) isn’t maintained. Healthy African cichlids have big appetites and will produce a lot of waste. Don’t feed your fish just because they appear to be hungry. African cichlids quickly learn that they can beg for food and in most cases be rewarded for doing so. Frequent water changes are essential to maintaining excellent water quality. Water changes will remove undesirable substances as well as replace necessary elements and trace minerals. The frequency and amount of your water changes will depend on your particular setup and bio-load. It is important to understand that the percentage of the water change will also be the percentage by which compounds will be lowered. A 20% water change will lower 20 ppm of NO3 by 4 ppm for example. Always be sure to siphon the substrate with every water change. Doing so will remove uneaten fish food, waste, and detritus which would eventually break down into nitrogenous compounds. Any bacteria that are removed during the siphon will quickly repopulate the bio-media in your filter. Testing for NO3 is a good way to determine what your water change schedule should be. If you are using a denitrification media or other method of removing NO3, then the frequency and amount of water changes will be reduced. As a general rule, maintain a water change schedule that will keep NO3 levels consistently at or below 20 ppm for optimal fish health. Keep in mind that the water being used to perform the water change needs to be free (or very low) in NO3. If it is not, then invest in a quality RO/DI system to produce water that is ultra pure and free of any and all contaminants. RO/DI water is in fact “too clean” and will need to have the water reconstituted (necessary minerals and trace elements replaced). To reconstitute the RO/DI water I highly recommend Seachem’s Chichlid Lake Salt to set GH and trace elements and Seachem’s Malawi / Victoria Buffer to set KH (carbonate hardness). Some aquarists will be fortunate enough to have their tap water suffice. In this situation, a commercially available dechlorinator such as Seachem’s Prime or Safe will need to be used to remove harmful chlorine or chloramines.
Over the years I have seen African cichlids being kept in widely different water parameters. However, the healthiest, most robust, and most colorful cichlids that I have encountered have been those which were kept in parameters that most closely match those of their natural environment. Water parameters for the rift lakes of Africa vary from lake to lake. I have personally had great success with maintaining a pH value in the range of 7.8 to 8.4, and GH and KH between 10 - 14 degrees for Malawi and Victoria species. Tanganyika species will do best at a pH range of 7.8 – 9.0, GH and KH between 14 – 20 degrees. Epsom salt is commonly used to raise GH, and baking soda does a good job at raising KH. However, I still use the Seachem buffers mentioned earlier for several reasons that I won’t go into here. Never assume your water parameters. Frequently test your aquarium’s water parameters, and test the water that you will use for water changes.
Wave makers and power heads are often used on African cichlid aquariums to increase water quality. They provide the benefits of increasing dissolved oxygen and keeping solid waste suspended in the water column so that they can be removed by the filter. The output of wave makers and power heads can be directed towards the water’s surface to increase surface agitation which will raise dissolved oxygen levels, or it can be directed towards the substrate to keep solids in suspension. Two or more units can be used on the same aquarium to achieve maximum efficiency. In some cases the flow rate of the aquarium’s filtration device may be turbulent enough so that these devices aren’t necessary. Every aquarium needs to be evaluated accordingly.
All aquariums will experience water loss through evaporation. As water evaporates the minerals are left behind. People often make the mistake of replacing the evaporated water or “topping off” their aquarium with tap water. This may be fine for a while as long as your tap water’s mineral content is low. However, if it is high the GH and KH levels in the aquarium will eventually rise above recommended levels. For this reason, it is recommended that all top off water be RO/DI water or water extremely low in mineral content. Distilled water is perfect for this as well but cost wise may not be practical depending on the rate of evaporation and size of the aquarium.
Covering the aquarium with a tight fitting glass canopy is a good idea. African cichlids can become quite rambunctious and splash water whenever they know they are about to be fed. A glass canopy will reduce the amount of water that can get on your floor, on the viewing panels, and on you. Evaporation is also reduced, because the water vapor will condense on the glass canopy and drip back into the aquarium. African cichlids also have the potential to jump out of the aquarium. No one wants to find one of their prized fish dried out and dead lying on the floor. If you find that your aquarium’s water keeps overheating or you simply want your aquarium to look its best, then you may want to invest in a wooden canopy instead. They give a more professional appearance to your aquarium, offer the benefit of keeping water splash to a minimum, and keep fish from jumping out. Another benefit of the wooden canopy when using LED’s is that the shimmer effect is more prominent. Glass canopies reduce the shimmer effect due to light scatter by the glass and light absorption by the condensation. The only drawbacks to a wooden canopy are higher cost and increased evaporation.
Water temperature is the most important water parameter for all aquatic organisms. Fish can gradually adapt to water parameters outside their natural environment’s normal range as long as consistency is maintained. However, a fish will quickly succumb to disease and even death if temperatures are allowed to persist above or below their recommended levels. Equipment can and will fail eventually, and for this reason I highly recommend redundancy when it comes to heating an aquarium. The price of an additional heater as a backup is minor when compared to the cost of replacing some or all of your beautiful fish. African cichlids will do well in temperatures ranging from 72 – 82*F. I keep my water temperature at 78*F year round. During the summer months my water temperature stays close to this value without the heater having to turn on.
As mentioned earlier, African cichlids are among the most colorful fish on the planet. Using a high quality light is beneficial to bringing out the colors in your prized fish. There are more lighting options available today than anyone can keep up with. Choosing what light to use is a matter of preference, and you will hear many different opinions. Multiple effects can be achieved by utilizing a combination of different colored fluorescent bulbs and/or led arrays. It is well known that bulbs or led’s that emit light in the spectrum of the colors in the fish will make those colors “pop”. Color enhancing fluorescent bulbs and multi-colored LED’s can be used to achieve this effect. LED’s also produce a shimmer or ripple effect that is synonymous with natural sunlight and metal halides. In my opinion this gives a more natural appearance to the aquatic environment than the constant state of light that fluorescent bulbs produce. Keep in mind that T-5’s will produce less heat and consume less energy than incandescent bulbs and T-8’s. LED’s are even more efficient than T-5’s. If long term cost is a concern, then you may want to make use of these more recent technologies.
Decorations for an African cichlid aquarium are also a matter of personal preference. Rocks, driftwood, certain plants, and even sunken ships can be used for décor. Make an attempt to provide plenty of territories in the form of caves and ledges in which territories can be claimed. Keep in mind that African cichlids love to dig, especially mbuna. For this reason it is recommended that all rockwork be placed directly on the bottom glass to prevent rocks from toppling as digging occurs. A falling rock could injure or kill a fish or even break the aquarium glass. Limestone rocks or Texas holey rock will give the added benefit of buffering the pH to some degree as carbonates are released into the water column. Crushed coral, oyster shells, and aragonite sands as substrates will also provide the same benefit.
Providing African cichlids with a high quality diet is very important if they are to grow at a normal rate and display their full potential. I recommend feeding a high quality pellet food such as NorthFin to insure that the fish’s nutritional needs are being met. The occasional treat of frozen mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, or krill for peacocks and haps is encouraged. Dried nori and seaweed are great treats for mbuna. Feed your fish only as much food as they can consume within a few minutes. Adding too much food can quickly clog filters and degrade water quality. I feed my fish a couple times a day, but others have had success feeding a little as once every other day. Remember to not feed your fish just because they look hungry, or you will spend a small fortune in fish food and have to increase your water changes.
Finally, make every attempt possible to purchase the highest quality African cichlids that you can. Starting with high quality specimens will insure that your fish have the genetic ability to achieve the full potential of that specimen. Look for fish that are active, rush up to the glass and beg for food, display bright coloration, and have well shaped heads and plump bodies. These are the fish that you want to adorn your aquarium. Avoid fish that appear lethargic or bloated, don’t appear hungry, have sunken bellies, possess dark splotches or salt like specks on their flanks, or have misshaped heads. These fish will never develop into a quality fish and may even bring disease to your current stock. There are many reputable breeders, suppliers, and even hobbyists across the country that want you to succeed. Good Luck!!!