Freshwater Fish

African Cichlids: Aquarium Care Guide

African cichlids are a larger species of freshwater fish that originate from Africa, Asia, and South America. These fish tend to be a popular pet with aquarists, due to the wide variety of colors they can come in, even if you don’t have a saltwater tank.

Each different type also has slightly different temperaments and are hardy in captivity.

African cichlids are an extremely active group of fish, making them an aquarium favorite to watch. Although they require special care, many different types can be good for beginning aquarium owners due to their toughness.

There are many colors and patterns of this species for you to choose from, although they can take up to a year to fully develop. Coloration can be affected by the quality of care they receive (we’ll cover that a little later).

The level of aggression of each type of African cichlid should be taken into account when placed together in an aquarium. They are more aggressive in general than other common tropical fish.

Although there are a ton of different African Cichlid species confirmed in the wild, there are far fewer available as pets. Almost all of the species you’ll find in personal aquariums originate from Lake Malawi in East Africa. A handful of others come from Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria.

Common Types of African Cichlids

Understanding a little about the types of African cichlids you can choose from is very important (beyond a simple color preference). Although these fish are generally aggressive, there may be some slight behavioral differences between them.

It doesn’t matter if you are someone planning to have their first aquarium or a seasoned professional. We highly recommend taking some time to learn about each variation.

Maingano: These have bold horizontal stripes in a variety of blues.

Zebra Mbuna, also known as Zebra Cichlids: As the name suggests, these fish have black and white stripes on their bodies.

Orange Zebra: These fish display black stripes or spots on their orange body. They grow up to about five inches long and are very aggressive.

Compressors: Also known by the surprising name “Malawi Eyebiter”, these fish are long, slender, and have a shiny silver color to their bodies. They can be very aggressive.

Electric Yellow: The electric yellow cichlid tends to be less aggressive than its relatives, which can make it a good fish for the inexperienced tank owner. These fish are shorter, only about three inches long. They are yellow in color with dark fin tips and a long dorsal fin that runs down the back.

Peacock cichlids: Only slightly aggressive, peacock cichlids (also called Aulonocara nyassae) are one of the most colorful types of cichlids, ranging in colors from dark tan to silvery blue. They are also bottom feeders.

Sun Peacock: These moderately aggressive fish are hardy, making them another good choice for new hobbyists. They sport a bright mix of yellows and blues.

Hap (short for “Haplochromis”): One of the most common types of cichlids, these fish prefer to swim in open water, have a medium level of aggression, feeding on smaller fish. Females tend to be duller in color than males.

Electric Blue Hap: Also known as Hap Ahli, these fish are easy to keep and come in a solid, vibrant blue color. Interestingly, blue haps don’t get along with peacock cichlids, so you may not want to house them together.

Kribensis (“kribs” for short): The smallest of the cichlids, these fish range from three to four inches in length. They are less aggressive and suitable for beginners.

Blue Moorii Dolphin: This fish is popular for its bright blue scales. They grow to be large, up to nine or ten inches. Because of this, they tend to be a bit more difficult to care for and require a larger tank.

Butterfly: These cichlids sport vertical black stripes. They can be quite docile, which allows them to live with other fish.

Buffalo Head: They have other names such as «Humphead», «Lionhead» and «Blockhead», in reference to their prominent foreheads. They tend to be more peaceful than others and grow to about 4.5 inches long).

Mbuna (sometimes called Malawi Cichlids): Like the other more common type of cichlid found in Lake Malawi, Mbunas are quite aggressive. They are herbivores, and both sexes are equally bright in color. These fish look for rocky areas to reside.

Giraffe: Also called Venustus, these fish tend to have blue faces with dark spots like those of giraffes. They are larger, measuring up to ten inches. Giraffe cichlids require more experienced handlers as they can be extremely sensitive to nitrate levels in the water.

Temperament and Behavior

As we mentioned earlier, African cichlids are an aggressive species in general (look at the Jack Dempsey for example). For example, they are more aggressive than fish like tetras. They are also very active.

However, this level of activity makes them fun fish to watch. Something always happens!

They are not the type of fish that just sit back and take it easy.

They want to investigate what is going on in their tank and will show no fear in doing so. This can sometimes lead to clashes with other fish at times.

Their aggressiveness is not something to be taken lightly when planning your aquarium. These traits will need to be tailored to your tank setup if you want to ensure the safety and health of all the fish in your tank.

African Cichlid Tank Setup

When it comes to finding the right tank build, you just have to stick to the basics. Make sure that all the fish in the tank have enough space and that the water is comfortable for everyone.

As long as you take care of these basics and maintain a healthy tank, everyone should be fine.

How big should your tank be?

Since African cichlids are an active and aggressive species, they must have plenty of space.

Fish that are at least six inches long should be considered larger and require a minimum of 30 gallons of aquarium space. Smaller fish need at least a 20 gallon tank.

If you want to add more fish to the aquarium, you should accommodate approximately three additional gallons per additional fish. Keep in mind that the fish will grow, so plan your tank around the size of the adult cichlids.

What to put in your tank

Most African cichlids prefer open water or rocky spaces, so be sure to adapt to both. Some fish like to forage in the sand, so it’s ideal to have a fine-grained substrate where they can forage without injuring themselves.

African cichlids are very territorial, so having plenty of cavities and hiding places is crucial to avoiding conflict. Aquarium plants, furniture and rock caves are suitable for this. If rocks are used, they must be secure and must not fall on the fish in your tank.

Of course, there should also be a properly sized filter and heater in each tank. Special lighting is not required, but is often used to enjoy the view.

ideal water flow

The water in the tank must be in motion, to mimic the natural current. This is usually accomplished with a regular tank filter, however African Cichlids found in rivers may appreciate a slightly stronger current. An additional air or water pump can be used for this purpose.

Water temperature and pH levels

Having a water level test kit on hand is crucial for monitoring the conditions in your tank. This should be standard protocol to ensure your tank is in a healthy condition for your fish.

The freshwater lakes and rivers in which these fish reside have hard water. Therefore, they need a pH range of 6.5 to 8.5. The exact number is more specific to the type of fish.

The ideal water temperature for African cichlids is a fairly flexible range between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. This should be enough to allow them to get comfortable and also accommodate their tank mates.

African Cichlid Tank Mates

Due to the aggressive nature of these fish, there are specific types of tank mates that should be avoided. Number one on this list would be the fish that prefers to swim in open water. They will most likely be attacked as they will be mostly defenseless.

Small fish should also be avoided as they are likely to become an easy meal.

It is tempting to house African cichlids in the same tank as South American cichlids as they look similar. However, they require different care and are likely to fight.

Bottom-feeding fish that are large enough to defend themselves will likely be left alone, such as the African catfish. These tend to be considered the ideal tank mates for African Cichlids.

If you want to play it safe and make sure no one gets attacked, a single-species tank is always the best option. This may not seem all that exciting, but it is a solution that many homeowners prefer.

You still get a colorful and exciting fish tank, but you never have to worry about walking into a scary scene.

Food and diet options

Variation in the diet of African cichlids is key. Depending on the type you have, they can be primarily insectivorous, herbivorous, or omnivorous. It’s good to include a bit of everything including a solid base of fish food.

The varieties of food you can give them include small fish meat, tubifex worms, insects, cichlid pellets, frozen food, wafers or brine shrimp, as well as some fruit and vegetable household supplies. They will need to be fed twice a day.

To avoid overfeeding, fish should not be fed more than they can eat in three minutes. Not only will this reduce waste, but it will also keep the tank cleaner.

African Cichlid Care

It is important to have your tank on a stable surface. The tank itself must be well sealed, without leaks. African cichlids have been known to jump out of the water from time to time, so having a sturdy lid on the tank is a good idea.

The water in the tank should be «cycled,» meaning it should be changed every two weeks or weekly, depending on how dirty the tank gets. As the fish produce waste, the nitrate levels in the tank water increase.

Changing the water often enough prevents nitrate levels from rising high enough to kill fish. Always thoroughly clean anything that comes into contact with the tank water as well.

A big part of African cichlid care is being able to recognize the signs of a problem. There are some common signs of illness to watch out for among your collection to avoid fatalities.

Some common illnesses and symptoms include:

  • Tuberculosis, which is highly contagious, causes fish to stop eating and develop white spots on their scales.
  • Bloat, or Malawi Bloat. Potentially fatal swelling in the abdomen.
  • Cotton disease, a fungal infection that causes white growths.
  • Swim bladder disease, noticed by a fish caught on the surface of the water.
  • Hexamita, marked by scaly lesions and lack of appetite.
  • Gill Flukes, a parasite that causes respiratory problems and slimy gills.

Average life

The average life span of African cichlids is eight years with proper care. Like any fish, this can vary dramatically if they live in a suboptimal tank situation with poor diet and water quality.

African Cichlid Breeding

When trying to breed African Cichlids, you will need to have a single male and female in the same tank. For optimal breeding odds, tank layout, furniture, and size should not be changed during this process.

It is important to know that the species is capable of mating within different species (crossbreeding). It is easier to use mature fish to ensure their ability to reproduce.

Always monitor the tank for fighting between the male and female, as breeding can lead to more aggression. African cichlids perform mating rituals in which they display their colors and move in certain ways. Once fertilized, your fish will lay their eggs and store them in a secure tank cave/cavity, or hold them in their mouths for about 21 hours (mouthbrooding).

During this time, it is important to watch for aggression around the group of eggs, called the fry. Sometimes your fish will try to eat the fry. In this case, the eggs should be separated in a «breeding» tank. When the fry hatch, a female can care for them for up to fourteen days. After this point, the female is ready to mate again.

It’s time to decide if they are right for you

Now that you have all the information you need to make a decision, it’s time to sit down and think.

Owning African Cichlids can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. They are beautiful, active and very exciting fish!

However, their aggressiveness can sometimes be something aquarists don’t want to deal with.

There is no right or wrong answer here. The right choice is what will be best for you and the aquatic life you choose to care for.

We hope you have gained much value from this care guide. As always, if you have any questions, you can always reach out and ask.

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