The Requirements for Keeping Cichlids

If you want to keep African Cichlids, have them spawn, and have them live a long life, exhibiting the optimum of their beautiful colouration and their most endearing traits, you must learn how to simulate the conditions of the African Rift Lakes.

The Water

All African Cichlids should be kept in water with a pH of 7.5-9.0, a water hardness from 10-20 dH, and a temperature between 25-28°C.

The actual ranges of the African Rift Lakes are:

Lake Tanganyika — 7.8-9.0

Lake Malawi —  7.4-8.4

Lake Victoria — 7.2-8.6 

Naturally, these values are always approximations, because ranges in nature often fluctuate and may thus be more or less, but the values stated above have been found to be best tolerated by Cichlids in aquaria.

The native waters of the African Cichlids is also very hard, containing many dissolved minerals and salts.

Since all African Cichlids appreciate this higher pH, these are one of the few fish species whose aquariums may be decorated (or supplemented)  with coral and shells, which normally push the pH of a freshwater aquarium above most fishes natural ranges. In some instances, it may, however, still be necessary to buffer water to reach these higher pH levels. There are many suitable commercial “Cichlid Buffers” on the market which can be used. Many of these manufacturers also offer “Cichlid Salts” and “Trace Elements”. We recommend using both the salts and trace elements, as fish which are kept in water containing them often exhibit superior coloration — simply because they are in water which more exactly recreates their natural conditions.


The next thing to consider is the aquarium itself. Because of their nature, Cichlids ideally should be housed in large tanks! How large? As large as you can possibly afford! When choosing the size and shape of a Cichlid aquarium, it is important to remember:  the larger the capacity and the more surface area (length x width), the greater becomes the selection of Cichlids you could choose from. Larger tanks are also more easily stabilised and kept stable that smaller tanks. In addition, larger tanks provide more space for individual territories, which means fewer losses due to aggression. Tank width always takes precedence over depth, simply because a greater width allows for more — and strategically better placed — rock structures.

 The cichlid aquarium also needs to be over-filtered, not only because Cichlids are greedy feeders and heavy excreters, especially of urine, but also because, unlike the slow, but constant fresh food supply in nature, feeding in aquaria takes place in short bursts, creating conditions which require higher filtration. Take care to choose a filter that helps create flow, but NOT any heavy current in your tank. Aeration is equally important in a Cichlid aquarium, because Cichlids require well oxygenated water.



THE Decor

As far as tank décor is concerned, a cichlid tank must have rock structures suited to the nature of the specific species kept. I cannot emphasise enough how important a properly structured habitat is to Cichlids. However large the tanks we choose may be, they remain minuscule in comparison to the natural habitat available to Cichlids in the wild! If you really stopped to let this point sink in, it must be obvious why most Cichlid keepers have such a struggle with in-tank aggression! 

I was appalled, recently, at the solution of a cichlid keeper who had no qualms about publishing his solution to aggression on a well-known Cichlid forum: Removing all structures in the tank that could encourage his Cichlids to claim territories! Perhaps even more appalling was the fact that not a single forum member criticised this solution! In catering to his own selfish needs, this Cichlid-keeper completely disregards the needs of the species he keeps. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that this person is in fact the origin of the aggression in his tank. 

The very nature of Cichlids is to be aggressive about territory,  food and  mates. It is an evolutionary trait without which they could not survive in the wild! When we house Cichlids in aquaria, we also have to accommodate their nature. The truth is that there is a remedy to in-tank aggression, and a very natural remedy at that!

Studies have found that the influence of habitat type is one of the greatest aggression triggers for Cichlid males –  and irrespective of the species, that aggression is directed equally at con- and heterospecifics. In fact, these recent findings tell us that habitat complexity plays a much larger role in shaping aggressive behaviour than most other suggested factors, such as competition for food resources, or even spawning and breeding.

 The primary requirement for relative peace in a Cichlid tank is sufficient rock-work, arranged aesthetically for your own sake, but strategically for the fish’s sake, to provide as many as possible niches, caves, hides and retreats — the ideal being at least one suitable retreat per fish, but preferably more. If the rock-work is well-placed and also arranged in layout patterns that further help delineate a range of separate territories, as well as opportunities for making, or claiming territories, habitat induced aggression should soon be adequately dealt with. 

Most Cichlid tanks are not aquascaped to their full optimum. The rock-work often reaches no higher than halfway up towards the water surface, wasting the entire upper half of the tank space that could be used to create caves and niches that help alleviate territorial disputes. 

At this point I would also like to bring to your attention just how crucial habitat is to breeding your Cichlids. 

Many aquarists fail to breed Cichlids successfully, despite setting up dedicated breeding tanks, selecting pairs carefully and keeping water conditions correct and stable, despite water changes and a special feeding regimen. Yet, just as many aquarists do almost none of the above and have no problems breeding their cichlids at all. They simply keep their Cichlids in their normal display tanks, make sure the water conditions are perfect and then let nature take it course. And strangely,  these latter aquarists  sometimes have to try to devise ways with which to stop their Cichlids breeding so much! 

So, what is the difference between these two groups? 

There is indeed a secret. It is so simple, I am sure it will almost floor you, but if you think it through, it does make complete sense. The answer, in short, is this: Habitat! Create a natural habitat for your fish! Mimic their natural habitat! Do so even in your dedicated breeding tank! 

Bad grammar though it may be, I use all those exclamation marks to emphasise my belief: If everything in the tank is as natural as possible for a captive habitat, the fish will in turn do exactly what is natural for them. They will pair off naturally and when ready, they will breed. They will do so, because in a nature-mimicking tank the fish are able to relax, as they feel safe and calm in an environment that is literally imprinted in their genes. 

This of course means that I am right in the face of another group of fish-keepers! 

To all you bare-base tank enthusiasts out there, I understand where you are coming from, but I will never agree with you, except for making one single concession: A bare-base tank is necessary for medicating sick fish, or for a medicated quarantine process. But, as an aquarium? Never! Because if this is the set-up of your choice, you are running your bare-base tanks for your own convenience, but certainly not for the well-being of your fish!

Believe me, it is no more difficult to clean and siphon a properly set-up, well-kept, nature-mimicking aquarium than a bare-base tank! It all boils down just to a little discipline and regular maintenance.

We all already know (or should by now know) that African Rift Lake cichlids require a lot of caves, retreats and hiding spots, that the best substrate for their tanks is plain, well-washed sand, and that the ratio of males to females is of paramount importance. 

But there is one further secret to creating a proper habitat that will induce healthy and frequent spawning:  The provision of caves that are never, ever moved, or re-arranged by you, and can never be toppled or under-dug by the tank inhabitants. Trivial though this ‘little detail’ may seem to us, the sense of permanence and security is of paramount importance to a Cichlid seeking to claim a personal territory in which to live, breed  and thrive. 

Yet, consider how you have chosen a home to attain a semblance of permanence, have made sure your ‘back is covered’, and have put security measures into place to protect yourself and your family. Seeking safe shelter is a basic instinct for all living beings. Why should it be difficult to understand that your fish need the same? 

Permanent caves are easily made from stones ‘glued’ together with aquarium silicone, taking care to leave only one entry point. Alternately, small clay pots, (extremely ugly in a tank on their own), can be similarly camouflaged with stones and built or ‘glued’ into your rock structure, ensuring that they also offer a ‘view’, so that the fish, while inside or in front of their caves,  do not have to strain to find out what is going on in their habitat.  Make sure that you never move, open or disturb these ‘caves’. They need to imbue a sense of security and permanence in the eyes of the fish. Cichlids love these caves! 

If you intend to keep Mbunas, your rock-work needs to almost break the surface of the water in your aquarium, while leaving swimming space in front of the rock structures. If you intend to keep  Haplochromis with other Cichlids, you need to plan, in addition to your rock structures, for a lot more swimming space  — as much as you can get. In a Haplochromis only tank, less rock-work will suffice. This does not mean that the rock-work should be any less complex. Because even this species needs retreats and places they can call their own. So even if you aesthetically arrange just a few large and medium boulders on the bottom of the tank, think strategically too : create plenty of caves and retreats, and delineate different territories by arranging your rocks in groups, islands and slopes in different areas of the tank.

Pro-tip: If your Cichlids tend to dig up and re-arrange your carefully constructed aquascape, stop and OBSERVE what they have done. Their need to rearrange your scape means that you have nor perfectly met their needs. Learn to interpret what they have done and why. As soon as your arrangement meets their requirements, they will stop digging and re-scaping!

A Cichlid tank can be as spectacular as a planted aquarium! A comprehensive guide to ‘aquascaping’ a Cichlid habitat can be found here, on our sister site.

The Substrate

All Cichlid tanks should have a sand substrate, foremost because this most closely mimics their natural habitat and makes them feel secure. In my opinion, bare-bottom tanks accommodate people, but never the wellbeing of the fish! However, there are many other reasons why a sand substrate is ideal. Many Cichlids naturally feed by grazing through the sand – for example Fossorochromis rostratus, and Placidochromis electra.  Many Cichlids take sand into their mouths and seem to spit it out; however science postulates that some sand is indeed ingested as a dietary aid, as sand is often found in the digestive tract of scientifically examined Cichlids. Also, some Cichlids cleanse their gills by taking in sand and expelling it through their gills, while others dive into, or build their nests in sand. Thirdly, sand is an egg-safe substrate when female mouth-brooders need to pick up and tumble their eggs.


Placidochromis electra, one of the stunning sand-feeding species

 Finally, and contrary to usually uninformed opinion, with sand substrates all detritus is kept at the top of the sand surface. With sufficient tank flow, such detritus tends to keep on moving until the filters can ‘grab’ and remove it. Without sufficient flow, detritus collects in small piles that are easily siphoned off. In a properly administrated tank, chances are that this is very seldom needed. The only other chore is that sand substrates should also be stirred around every two weeks or so, to release any trapped gases. Since Cichlids are notorious diggers that often re-arrange their sand, this becomes almost an automatic task. Any previously dark patches so disturbed will soon return to the natural sand colour. The more regularly this is done, the less the possibility of foul odour emanating from the stirred up sand. 

Ordinary, properly cleaned river-sand is perfectly fine, although no-one is going to stop you if you opt for fancier, more expensive sands! While many aquarists like to use crushed coral to help harden the water and increase its pH, its coarseness traps a lot of debris, just like gravel and is less suited to the sand-feeding habits of this species. In fact, to influence pH at all, crushed coral should be placed in such a way that it is constantly in contact with a continuous water flow — logically making this material a rather silly choice as substrate. Coral sand, while more suitable than crushed coral, is expensive, especially when it comes to larger tanks – in which case a mix of ordinary and coral sand may be a more economic solution. As for influencing the pH, well, you read what I had to say about crushed coral.

The Lighting

The last important requirement for a Cichlid tank is adequate lighting. There are two routes available here — to inhibit the growth of algae, or to promote it. In my opinion, you should promote algae growth. Not only is it essential for species like the ‘Mbunas’, but most African Cichlids enjoy scraping the algae off the rocks, or picking around in the algae, as algae growth is one of their natural sources of nutrition in their native Lakes. Over time infusoria will become established in the algae in your tank, providing further tiny tit-bits to feast on. The rocks in both Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika are covered with thick mats of algae called ‘Aufwuchs’ and most cichlids within these Lakes pick and scrape at this mat for the sake of ingesting the algae, as well organisms like paramecium, copepods, rotifers and crustaceans living within. The only way to promote algal growth is via bright lighting!

 If you get the essentials right, Cichlid keeping is one of the easiest and most pleasurable aquarium hobbies you can think of! Cichlids are hardy and have amazing personalities which really come to the fore in tanks that mimic nature. That is why we keep them. Should it not also be the reason why you would want to keep them?

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