Setting up an African Cichlid Tank
You have seen them in stores, the multi colored fish in tanks labelled "African Cichlids".
This guide will provide basic information on how to setup an aquarium for keeping these beautiful fish.
Essential to the fish and somewhere it is going to spend its entire life. Lake Malawi is a near alkaline lake with a pH that seasonally varies from 7.5 up to 8.8 and yet is soft to medium hard water at 4-6 dGH and 6-8 dKH. Trying to replicate these conditions in the home aquarium will create a good environment for the development of the chosen species.
Without having a high pH coming from ones tap/faucet, what are the ways of attaining and maintaining a pH suited to these fish?
1) If you have a high pH occurring naturally from your tap/faucet you are already at an advantage over someone who does not. The water is well suited to the fish and will not need extra additions of chemicals or other substances to buffer the pH.
2) Natural Buffers such as the use of Crushed Coral sand, shell sand can be used, these over time will leech minerals into the water causing the pH to be maintained at a high level.
3) Use of Limestone this serves two purposes, not only does it aid in the buffering of water, it also serves to offer shelter for fish. Lake Malawi is a naturally rocky bottom lake, I will get into this in more detail later in this article.
4) Addition of chemical store bought additives, These can include chemical solutions such as Lake Malawi cichlid Buffer, Proper pH 8.2 and Sodium Bicarbonate
When setting up the tank, achieving the correct pH and keeping it stable prior to the addition of fish is essential, trying to mess with the water chemistry with fish in only causes stress and undue suffering to the fish.
Lake Malawi being in the African Rift Lake system is generally 24-26°C (76-79°F), this temperature range should be maintained in the home aquarium. Care should be taken when positioning the tank, sources of heat which may cause temperature fluctuations should be avoided, these include baseboard heaters, heating system ducts or placement near a window. Having a thermometer and heater (sized correctly to your tank) will serve to keep the temperature stable. Those with larger tanks, you might want to consider the use of two or more heaters spread at opposite ends of the tank, this will serve as a backup in case one heater happens to fail (it DOES happen!)
Almost any type of light can be used, LED, Fluorescent, although Metal Halide (MH) is not needed and should be avoided as it can cause water temperatures to rise to dangerous levels. Bright lighting has a detrimental effect on the fish by causing irritation, washing color.
Most Malawi cichlids are messy eaters and produce a lot of waste. Being an aggressive species, many people overstock tanks to calm this aggression. Overstock is normal practice for cichlid keepers although filtration needs to match the stock level.
General rule of thumb, 10-15 times the tank volume per hour, so if you have a 55g tank, minimum you are looking at is a filter or filters more likely, capable of 550gph. The use of more than one filter is highly recommended and those with large tanks above 75g may consider setting up a sump system with a wet/dry filter.
Considering the messy nature of these fish, canister filters should be considered more over "Hang on Back (HOB)" filters, HOB filters will need frequent cleaning of the pads and this can get expensive. Canister filters which will cost more initially, generally do not need as much cleaning and can run longer. Like all filters though, maintenance will need to be performed periodically.
Under Gravel filters and Under Gravel Jet systems should be avoided in Lake Malawi tanks as these will more than likely be dug up, Lake Malawi cichlids like to dig and staring at exposed piping or plates is not appealing when looking at a tank.
Rocks, Rocks and more Rocks! The natural environment of the Lake is rocks and boulders with a sandy bottom. These conditions should be replicated in the home aquarium depending on the species of fish chosen.
Mbuna (Rock Dwellers) as the name suggest spend time in the rocky shallower areas of the Lake, examples of Mbuna are Yellow Labs (Labidochromis Careleus), Rusty (Iodeotropheus Sprengae).
Haplochromis and Peacocks spend their time in deeper water, descending to the depths there is much less rock formation, small rocks give way to enormous boulders.
While obviously it is not practical to keep enormous boulders in a home aquarium, distinction should be made between the Mbuna and Haps /Peacocks. Rocks for Mbuna, less so for Haps / Peacocks.
Mixing the groups should be avoided given the dietary requirements being different and Mbuna being more aggressive than the open water cruising Haps /Peacocks.
Setting up a tank with mbuna many people utilize light diffusion panel or eggcrate on the bottom of the aquarium prior to rocks being added. This gives a buffer zone under the substrate should a rock structure collapse, having a large rock fall directly onto glass is not something you want.
Many people use simply Playsand for the bottom of tanks, specialist cichlid substrate in my opinion is not worth the money and is no different than regular sand. Sand would be the prefered substrate as regardless of species, Lake Malawi cichlids dig and like to rearrange tank substrate a lot!.
Generally except in areas where rivers and streams flow into Lake Malawi there are no plants. In the home aquarium, cichlids will sample many species, killing them or leaving chunks floating all over. Known plants that people have had success with are Anubias, Java fern and Hornwort. It depends on the nature of the fish though, what works for some people may not work for others.
The possibilities for decorating an African Cichlid tank can be left to the home users imagination. Basic rules need to be followed though such as the rocks and sandy substrate, following these will allow a good environment for the development of the fish,
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