From Malawi haps to Madagascan cichlids

by George J. Reclos

The decision to switch from Malawi haps to Madagascan cichlids was taken some time ago but as long as the Madagascan cichlids were small and aggression was well kept at bay, the use of a larger tank was not really necessary. However, as time passed by it became evident that no matter how many 100 liter tanks I used, the close proximity of P. polleni resulted in serious aggression with skin abrasions and underfed juveniles. Thus the time had come to remove my large haps and prepare the tank for its new inhabitants. The haps were donated to some fellow hobbyists and the few that remained were taken by a petshop owner for his show tank. It is true that the needs of the Madagascan cichlids do not coincide with those of Malawi haps in a number of ways. In short, apart from the gravel and some stones, the elements of the decoration as well as the philosophy of the tank had to be changed. The haps needed a lot of swimming place and apart from sand and many stones (creating hiding places) they didn't need much. Plants were an optional extra and - if not uprooted on the spot - would be bitten or even eaten by them. Moreover, since I mostly had pairs the intraspecies aggression was kept to a minimum. By carefully selecting the species I kept in this tank, aggression between them was not more than the tank could handle.

However, in the new tank I planned to keep 3-4 species all in groups of 5-6 individuals and - even worse - sexing them was almost out of the question. Therefore the tank needed to provide as many hiding places as possible, swimming place and - if possible - be "naturally" divided in three or more parts in which 2-3 males would create their own territories without being in visual contact with the male in the next part. Moreover, in contrast to Malawi haps, Paratilapia polleni look far better in subdued light. Indeed, in subdued light most of them take their stunning black coloration while in the "open" space they turn back to the light brown one. After checking various sources it became evident that sand and some stones were OK but the tank also needed wood - a lot of wood. In order to create the partitions of the tank I also needed plants, preferably tall and dense plants. What should be added in this equation is the fact that the pH should be alkaline (7.6 - 7.8) which is quite limiting for plants while the temperature didn't matter that much (good news on this front). The great advantage of Madagascan cichlids is that they don’t care about plants. They don’t eat them and their digging activity is considerably less than that of most other cichlids. Therefore it seems possible to have large cichlids and a planted tank. Stories told by other hobbyists point to that direction, too.The fish to be housed in this tank initially were nine Paratilapia polleni sized 4-7 cm at that time, and a collection of catfishes which included a fully grown Synodontis decorus, a S. angelicus, a S. notatus, a S. multipunctatus (special thanks to Stavros for this magnificent fish), a Scobiancistrus aureatus, two fully grown Botia modesta and 10 Ancistrus sp. “white seam” – L059

Selection of the right plants was easy. My first choice was Aponogeton sp., which happens to be found in their natural habitat, too. However, these plants are somewhat demanding, not so dense and are quite expensive. Next choice was Vallisneria gigantea which grows fast, produces shaded areas and prefers alkaline water. Moreover, it is cheap, produces runners by itself and is not demanding in terms of fertilizers, light intensity etc. At first, a number of fast growing (and hence nitrate absorbing) plants was to be used to keep algae under control. Since I already had a large amount of Ceratophylum demersum this was to be used for the beginning. C. demersum has the disadvantage that is basically a floating plant thus not recommended for a tank which used an overflow for filtration since every now and then all of it was found in the overflow opening.

Another issue was the wood. Buying the quantity of bogwood I needed would cost me a fortune. The next choice was vine wood. We had a lot of it lying on our garden (we got rid of a 30 meter vine tree a year ago) so why not use it ? Although it was recommended in a couple of books, still we were concerned about the safety of the fish. Vine wood contains a huge quantity of substances which would leach in the water so a pretreatment was necessary. On the positive side, vine wood is unusual in a tank and has a more “natural” texture compared to bogwood. Moreover, it is darker and makes a better contrast with the green of the plants’ foliage. Let’s give you some further details and photos taken during the “curing” process. You can see all the changes that this tank has undergone during the last 20 months in the photos below. Since the tank is both sides open, sometimes the bogwood appears to be on the right and sometimes on the left of the picture.

Step 1. The rock piles of the previous aquascape were partially removed and only a formation at the filter side remained in place. The first "treated" vine wood is already in place. The haziness is due to the shifting of the sand since only hours ago this tank was the home of large haps which were netted (10/01/2003).

Some more plants were added - mainly fast growing species to create shaded areas for the P. polleni (26/01/2003).

More vine wood is added along with the first large pieces of bogwood. The plants have already grown a bit (02/2003).

More bogwood is added (right side of tank in this picture) while a batch of Vallisneria gigantea (a gift from fellow hobbyist Sotiris Glistis) is planted. Hopefully, runners will make a dense "fence" there (05/2003).

The Vallisneria has grown considerably while more and more runners are produced. The fish already use it a hiding place (06/2003).

The Vallisneria has grown even more now so some of the other plants can be removed without changing the aquascape considerably. The plant "divider" will - of course - stay in place. In this picture, the vine tree wood is seen at the left side of the tank while the bogwood pieces were added in the right side (09/2003).

The tank as it looks in May 2004. Click on the images to get the high resolution pictures.

NEW The tank as it looked in April 2004 before the beauties inside it (you can see some of them in the open space) decided that it is time to start breeding. They did their own decoration by uprooting all the plants in the tank. So, the tank doesn't look like that anymore, but this is how it should look. Click on the images to get the high resolution pictures. Photos by G.J.Reclos/MCH

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