Aquascaping with East African Rift Lake Cichlids - Part 1

by George J. Reclos, Takis Tsamis and Andreas Iliopoulos


One of the issues that most hobbyists will have to deal sooner or later is Aquascaping. This issue is the most pleasing as well, since you are able to enjoy the results of your efforts almost immediately. Some ideas and perfect examples of aquascaping can be found in Patrizia's section. In this article we are going to narrow things down a bit since we are going to focus exclusively on African Rift Lake cichlids. There are two parameters which we are going to take into account while exploring this issue. Suitability of the aquascape and Suitability of the tank. The Aquascape should serve two purposes which - in some cases - are contradicting each other : the safety and well being of the fish and our visual pleasure. On the other hand, the tank itself poses two problems that are related to aquascaping. Its dimensions may limit the kind of fish that can be kept in it (it definitely limits the number of them) while it may also limit what you can use when decorating it. Our approach excludes all plastic ornaments since we believe that, no matter how well made they are, still the natural thing is always superior. With the kind of technology available today there is no reason not to go for natural elements. Sand, stones, shells, wood and plants. These are the elements that we are going to use in this article. These elements look better than the artificial ones but appearance is not the only difference. Appearance is important of course and you can easily note the difference between the sight of algae covering a rock or stone and a plastic ornament. In the first case, it looks natural and is desired while in the latter, it looks simply like a foreign (and ugly) object. However, what is more important is the fact that this natural material is also functional. There is a whole article on this issue in which we also give information on how to collect and prepare those elements for your tank. There is also an article on how to clean the sand in your tank. Therefore, you have all the information you need in order to use the correct elements for your tank. 

The main problem with East African Rift Lake cichlids is their behavior - their "character" if you prefer. Usually aggressive, almost always territorial, very intelligent, dedicated diggers, those fish represent a challenge. The usual rules do not apply here - at least as far as stocking levels are concerned. The fish keeper must make the correct decisions and create an environment that will serve his / her fishes in the best possible way. This will ensure that his tank will be a source of joy and pleasure for many years. A wrongly setup tank will be a source of problems and frustration. Why risk it ? The solutions we present here are not the only ones that can be used. You can experiment with them, combine them or use your imagination to come up with more creative solutions. All we aim at is to give the basic principles, the main issues that need to be addressed and some suggestions as to which fish can be housed in a specific tank. While making our proposals we made some assumptions which come from our own experience. Thus, we do not use the "overcrowding" principle for Malawi mbuna, while we allow our big cichlids ample space to swim. We assume that the reader has made his mind as to which fish he is going to keep and that he is not going to mix New World cichlids (or any other fish) with his Rift Lake cichlids. Consequently, we have eliminated the use of "dither fish" something which we don't find necessary - not in a tank which is setup correctly. The big fish "compatibility" issue is already discussed in great extend and should be read first ! Wrong tank size, wrong aquascape and wrong fish combination are the biggest sources of troubles for the fish keeper. Bear in mind that this will inevitably cause fish stress and make your cichlids more susceptible to diseases.

The East African Cichlids could be roughly divided in five categories according to the type of tank we have. Mixing fish from different Lakes is not advisable, although cichlids from Lakes Victoria and Malawi can live together due to similar water parameters required. Thus the five "categories" are defined as follows : 1) Small Tanganyikan shell dwellers, 2) Malawi mbuna and Victoria rock fish, 3) mid-sizedTanganyikan or Malawi cichlids, 4) Tropheus spp. tanks, 5) Malawi Haps and large Tanganyikan cichlids. The very popular "african peacocks" (Aulonocara sp.) are "included" in the "mbuna" class (although they really do not belong there). This is because although a bit larger than the  average mbuna they are very peaceful species so they can be housed in smaller tanks. Please remember to house only one Aulonocara species per tank since those fishes are very prone to hybridization. As far as tank size is concerned we can divide the tanks in 5 size ranges which cover the usual sizes found in hobbyists' house. Small tanks (up to 30 gallons / 110 liters), low end medium tanks (between 30 and 55 gallons / 110 - 210 liters), high end medium tanks (55 to 125 gallons / 210 - 500 liters), large tanks (125-200 gallons / 500 - 750 liters) and very large tanks (over 200 gallons / 750 liters). We assume that each hobbyist will select his tank according to the fish he is going to keep, i.e. he will not choose a 300 gallon tank to keep small shell dwellers. We do not say this is prohibited, but it is the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, he will use the same layout as he would do for a small tank only with more sand and more shells (and of course add far more fish in his tank).

This article will go one step further and recommend some species which will do well in those tanks. We will also list some species which won't, along with the reasons which make them unsuitable. There are over 1.000 cichlid species in the three Lakes therefore it is impossible to list them here. However, you can do your homework. Read about them and you be the judge. Bear in mind that you should choose a trustful source of information. If you read something which is profoundly wrong then you shouldn't trust any information from this source. We have seen Melanochromis chipokae (a Malawi mbuna species) to be referred to as "mildly aggressive". If you see this kind of information you know you have to keep on searching. This particular species is a very aggressive species in captivity and a real killer in small tanks (smaller than 30 gallons).

Small tanks (up to 30 gallons / 100 liters).

This is the most limiting size since African Rift Lake cichlids are territorial fish (even the small ones) so they need space. To many hobbyists, this size of tank (especially less than 15 gallons) is simply unsuitable to house African Cichlids. We support this view but we have to consider those tanks as well. The main difficulty is that you have to provide hiding places for the cichlids, usually stone formations which take space. And space is something you don't have in a 10 or even a 20 gallon tank. However, there are still some options. Of course, the smaller the tank the less options there are. Usually people choose small Tanganyikan shell dwellers (e.g. Neolamprologous sp.) while innovation can work out miracles as you can see in the examples below.

A very clever idea for a small tank. The use of vertical flat stones creates many hiding places and territories in a small space, thus utilizing the limited space in the best possible way. This setup can be effective even in very small tanks (10 gallons / 40 liters)
A more typical layout for a small tank with Africans. These shell dwellers live happily in a combination of shells, open sand space and tocks. More natural than the previous example but requires more space.

 A less typical choice is a pair or trio of small cichlids - preferably mild ones. Excellent selections are the Labidochromis species. With these fishes you can't go wrong if you keep one male with one / two females. Only males exhibit aggression and you are definitely going to keep only one male in your 10-20 gallon tank. As we go up in this category (20-30 gallons / 75-120 liters) things look far better since we can now keep even aggressive species - provided the tank setup has many hiding places. The hiding places should be constructed in a way that some of them allow only the smaller females to enter while only 2-3 of them can be used for the male. Planting such tanks is an optional extra. Some species (e.g. Melanochromis auratus, M. chipokae, Maylandia zebra etc.) are better avoided at all for tanks up to 30 gallons.

Continued in next page


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