AFRICAN CICHLIDS come from a variety of places. There are cichlids from West Africa, East Africa, the African rivers and cichlids from the Rift Lakes. The term Rift Lakes applies to the three main lakes of the African continent : Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. Among them of special interest is Lake Malawi. In this relatively small lake for millions of years more than 600 species of cichlids have evolved. The unique fact with this lake is that it is inhabited almost exclusively by cichlids (in contrast to the other two Rift Lakes) and that, almost all cichlids are endemic in this lake, that is they are only found in this lake. Cichlids of Lake Malawi belong to two distinct groups Mbuna (fish usually inhabiting the rocky part of the Lake) and non-mbuna which are all the rest. Other names associated with the latter are utaka and Haplochromines though most of them have been recently abandoned.
These two groups consist of many species each but there are some general characteristics of special importance for the hobbyist. Thus, mbuna are smaller, vividly colored fish, more active and aggressive than non-mbuna, usually herbivores feeding on rock algae and crustaceans. Species that belong to the mbuna group are Melanochromis, Cynotilapia, Labidochromis and Pseudotropheus among others. Among the non-mbuna group some well known species are Aulonocara (African peacocks), Cyrtocara, Nimbochromis, Protomelas, Copadichromis, Lethrinops etc. These are less aggressive (this doesn't mean not aggressive) fish mainly because their territories are not so close to each other and less defined, they become considerably larger than the mbuna and are mostly omnivorous (most of them feed on small fry).
When the African cichlids from the Rift Lakes were introduced in the hobby most of the aquarists tried to get the best of both worlds by creating aquariums housing both Tanganyikans and Malawis. The recent trend is to create tanks dedicated to species from one Lake only and this is not the end. I have read many discussions by experts concluding that the best is to have either an mbuna or a non-mbuna tank. This conclusion is mainly based on the different dietary needs of the two groups.
More related articles : Conditioning Wild Caught Cichlids , African cichlids - How do they communicate? , Keeping African Rift Lake cichlids in “harmony” , Which tank size will fit my fish ? , Selection criteria
Color The most distinct characteristic of African cichlids is color. It is said that some Africans have the kind of intense color only encountered in marine aquaria and this is true for species like Melanochromis auratus, Labidochromis caeruleus (electric yellow labido) or Sciaenochromis ahli (electric blue hap). Almost all species have a beautiful color combination which is a delight to see when the males show their breeding coloration. It must be noted that in many species there is a sexual dimorphism and dichromatism. Usually the male has a much brighter coloration. In these species, the fry always comes in the colors of the female and it may take many months before the male color appears. It is therefore not advisable to rely on color when sexing these cichlids. This is better done by checking the vents of the fish.
Aggression This is an unpleasant characteristic of the African cichlids from Lake Malawi. Almost all species are territorial and most of them intolerant of (at least) their own species. In the limited space of the aquarium it is not advisable to have more than one male from species like Melanochromis, some Pseudotropheus, Nimbochromis, Protomelas and many others, unless a very big tank is available (more than 1.000 liters). In some very aggressive species even the females show a territorial behavior (Melanochromis auratus and Melanochromis chipokae are characteristic examples). Sometimes, the aggression of the male is directed against any similarly colored fish (especially between Aulonocara species).
Some ways to reduce aggression in the context of the aquarium are a) the use of dither fish or b)an overcrowded aquarium. The dither fish is quick fish that can become the target of the aggression of cichlids but can escape because of their speed. The overcrowded tank is based on the theory that when too many fishes are in the same tank no territories can be established therefore aggression is minimized. Generally speaking it is a good advice to carefully select the fish you plan to put in your tank. Aggressive fish should be kept with fish of similar temperament or larger species that can defend themselves. Another point to consider is that latest additions will have a much harder time finding their place in your tank so they better be the most aggressive species you plan to keep. Adding the fish just before lights go off is a good alternative. For the newcomers to these cichlids it should be noted that aggression doesn't mean just chasing around the tank; it means killing the intruder.
More related articles : Compatible Fish - a complicated issue , Fish Aggression - A Pictorial Guide , Africans and Catfishes , Which tank size will fit my fish ? , Keeping African Rift Lake cichlids in “harmony”
pH Alkaline. The pH of a Malawi tank should be somewhere between 7.8 and 8.5. You should always take this requirement into consideration when buying more fish or live plants for your tank. Very few plants (e.g. Valissneria sp.) can thrive under these conditions.
More related articles : pH table , The effect of pH (and not only) on fishes , Lake Malawi - Water Parameters , The effect of pH on the Fry Sex ratio , The Chemistry of the African Rift Lakes , Make your own Salt Mixtures , Simple software which makes our life easier
GH / KH A GH value over 10 is a good starting point (moderately hard water). KH values are not so crucial for the well being of the Malawi cichlid but it can help a lot to keep the pH stable even if something goes wrong (carbon dioxide injection or overfeeding). A KH value of 8-10 is a sure bet.
More related articles ; See table and notes on KH , See table and notes on GH , The Chemistry of the African Rift Lakes , Lake Malawi - Water Parameters , Make your own Salt Mixtures , Simple software which makes our life easier
Filtration In short, the stronger the filtration the better. It is estimated that the bare minimum for having healthy Africans is 5.5 times the water volume per hour. Even with a 400 liter aquarium you should use at least a 2.200 Lt / hour filtration system. Africans dig a lot, eat a lot and produce too much waste. On top of that, the typical Malawi tank doesn't have any live plants in it. This means that the whole of waste must be removed with filtration. It is absolutely essential to regularly check that your filtration system is working. It is better to turn the outlet of your filter upwards so you can easily see the surface water movement and immediately know if the flow is the correct one. Special care should be paid before leaving for vacations. I always use a 780 VA UPS (battery backup) with each tank. This UPS is capable of keeping my internal filters on for 5-6 hours. It is not advisable to connect your heaters to the UPS. Firstly, water can keep its temperature for a very long time. Secondly, the heaters need too much power to run, so they will drain your battery very soon.
More related articles : On Fluidized bed Filters , Filtration - Do It Yourself , Filtration beyond Theory , The Use of Ultra Violet (UV) Radiation in Aquaria systems , Using Monitors - In a Mediterranean marine system , Tank Window Cleaning , Design and Construction of a filtration system (sump) , Replacing the filter in a 500 L tank , Activated Carbon , Leaving for vacations - Final Preparations !