The Optimum Cichlid Aquarium Set UpBy Michael Grosman
The groups of fishes commonly referred to as Cichlids, comprise a vast group of, generally larger and more aggressive fishes from Africa and South and Central America with a few species being found in Asia. They offer such a large variety of bright colors, shapes and habits that they have become one of the most popular fishes kept by hobbyist’s world wide.
Such is the diversity of species, breeding habits and feeding that it becomes necessary to set up different groups of Cichlids in different tanks. Some of these include African Cichlids, American Cichlids, Dwarf Cichlids or Discus. It is usually recommended that you keep these like minded fishes together and don’t mix them in general.
Selecting and Positioning Your Tank
Always try to choose a tank with the largest possible surface area and volume as most cichlids grow quite large. Make sure you always have a glass cover to stop your fish jumping out.
Position your new aquarium so that you avoid direct sunlight hitting the aquarium for too long as this can cause excessive algae problems.
Choosing Gravel, Decor and Setting Up
Cichlids are quite territorial and the more holes, refuges and interesting “zones” you can create make for a much harmonized community.
A good starting point is to place in your tank a background that can offer the realism and natural environment that these fish will feel very relaxed and unstressed in. Check out the cichlid mansion range from Aquarium + Reptile Rocks Inc if you want something extraordinary.
Next is the gravel we advise a fine blended gravel as too coarse a gravel size allows uneaten food and waste to accumulate in the pockets between pebbles away from water flow that break it down. There are several varieties to choose from. Clean your gravel in small quantities in a bucket. Three or four rinses should be sufficient. Place the cleaned gravel into your tank along with a little water.
Next to add some more “zones” you can add cleaned rocks and driftwood and position them. Triangulate your decorations to create a greater depth of field and provide an amphitheatre where the fish can congregate in a community setting. Try to slope your gravel slightly towards the rear and sides using rocks and logs to create tiers and depth. The lightweight rocks from A+RR Inc like quartz rocks, north head ridge, barnacle, rock pool and charred wood make this fun and easy to do. When you have the major decorations in place, add a little water, if this is a little dirty from the gravel siphon this dirty water out again into your bucket.
Next fill your tank. Avoid disturbing the gravel by using a plate or newspaper onto which you can direct the water flow. Some coral sand is a good addition to an African tank, while white Rift Lake Sand looks great for Africans also but can show up detritus badly. These aspects will be discussed further later.
Preparing your Tap Water
Next we must treat our tap water to remove harmful chlorine and ammonia. There are several products that will remove both, the best value is Amquel Instant water Detoxifier.
It is also necessary to replace electrolytes like, magnesium, and potassium making in tap water.
The electrolytic aquarium salts are essential to fishes well being. Not only provide an anti-bacterial effect, but help fishes produce body slime to protect themselves from infection and create an essential osmotic barrier so they do not dehydrate. Make sure it is dissolved before adding to your aquarium.
There are also several products we can use to specific water conditions for African and Discus. To calculate water volume: consider 10cm x 10cm x 10cm = 1 liter. So length (cm) x Width (cm) x Height (cm) divided by 1000 = Volume (liters).
Biological Filter Supplementation
The Best way to get crystal clear water is to pro-actively provide bacteria cultures as biological filter supplement. In our opinion WASTE CONTROL and CYCLE used in conjunction with one another or HBH TERMINITE are the best way to enhance your filtration and stay ahead of the game. People using these products simply do not encounter the same problems as people who take a minimalist approach (don’t use a filter supplement) and end up constantly reacting to problems. These bacteria cultures help convert all organic wastes to ammonia then further to nitrite and finally to nitrate. To establish your tanks bacteria populations can take several weeks but is accelerated greatly by adding supplements. Do not overstock your new aquarium during this run in period.
All good filters provide ample filter media surface areas for the colonization of aerobic (oxygen breathing) denitrifying bacteria which break down fish waste. The greater the volume of the filter and the greater the flow rate, the bigger the population of bacteria to keep your tank clean. This is Biological filtration. All good filters should provide some sponge as Mechanical filtration. Chemical filtration is also important. We always use ammonia remover as a safeguard. Carbon is also beneficial but Purigen is superior. It is rechargeable and will also remove log stains from your tank (That is if you did not use the Charred wood from A+RR Inc). Remember to rinse loose particles out before adding to your filter.
Freshwater Trickle filters offer the most filtration for large seriously stocked tanks.
External Canister filers like the PRIME, EHEIM, FLUVAL or VIA AQUA are the best of the commercially available filters. They offer the largest volume of media and can be concealed from view. All these brands have a simple priming system and excellent taps to isolate water in the tubing while the filter is cleaned.
Hang On styles like the AQUACLEAR and AQUAONE are also very good. They possibly provide the best value if your budget does not permit an external canister. Simple fill the filter box with water and turn on. Water is pumped through the filter and gravity flows back into your tank.
Internal motorized filters like the CRYSTAL , RIO , and EIHEM are popular for smaller tanks or as a secondary filter for extra circulation in a large tank. Internals usually do not interfere with top glass or hoods. These can be placed under one of your lightweight rocks.
Air Operated filtration is often not sufficient for cichlids. We do highly recommend air bubbling in Cichlid tanks. Be sure to use a Check Valve so that water cannot flow back into your pump if power goes off.
If you have a Cichlid Mansions or Amazon background from A+RR Inc you can conceal a lot of the plumbing from view which makes for a very attractive set up.
Although nitrate (residual waste) is relatively harmless, the levels will accumulate and become dangerous if regular partial water changes are not performed to dilute nitrates. Cichlids are large fish that eat a lot, so nitrates accumulate quickly. PH is also pulled dangerously lower by organic waste accumulation. Therefore, no matter how good your filtration is, you still must water change regularly. We recommend a 1/3 – ½ water change fortnightly to keep pH above neutral and nitrates low.
The best tool to assist you with water changes is a Lee’s Gravel Vacuum. They allow you to remove the dirtiestwater from around the gravel and replace it with clean, treated tap water. This task is easier to do and a better job done if you have lightweight rocks and décor. We recommend you test pH and nitrate weekly to ensure your water changing maintenance is sufficient to maintain this balance. PH can be maintained using PH UP, but the only easy way to remove nitrate is by water changing.
An important tip when changing. Rinse your filter media in your old aquarium water rather than under a tap as the chlorine in tap water will kill off the precious filter bacteria living in the foam and other media. If you follow these procedures you should never have to completely break your tank down to clean it out.
If you want to keep Cichlids you will need to heat them. A good guide is approximately 1 watt of heating per liter of water. A higher wattage heater than necessary is often a good choice though because they can be used on larger aquariums. Position your heater in a back corner at a 45 degree angle so that heat does not rise directly onto the thermostat. Make sure that there is good water movement around the heater to ensure that the element is heating. Large cichlids can get quite boisterous, so a heater guard will stop your heater being broken. We believe it necessary to also install a thermostat to check the heater. The stick on types are the best in our opinion as the suction cup type soon do not stick and require replacement.
Lighting is necessary to view your fish at night time. To achieve this we find it better to illuminate your tank from afternoon until bed time when people can more easily enjoy their tanks. Lighting left on all day will undoubtedly cause excessive algae problems. For best results with plants we recommend high intensity full spectrum white lighting. We like to use Aquastars, Arcadia ’s or Power Glo’s.
The African Cichlid Tank
The African Rift lake Cichlids from Lakes Malaqi, Tanganyika and Victoria have become a popular variety of fish for people who desire dramatic color, size and movement in their tanks. African cichlids are quite aggressive and fast moving and should be kept in tanks set up for a community of African cichlids.
African Cichlids inhabit the rocky shorelines of the rift lakes of Africa . The water in these lakes is quite hard and alkaline. Large schools of fish graze algae from the rocky outcrop reefs. Amongst the algae live small crustaceans which also constitute part of the diet of African cichlids.
The bottom of the lakes is sandy. Innumerable caves formed between the boulders offer protection to young fish and brooding females. Check out the Cichlid mansion and Amazon range of backgrounds if you want realism and something special. Most species from Lake Malawi are mouth brooders and constitute a large proportion of the species available in the hobby. A lot of the Tanganyikan species form lifetime pair bonds and protect their young, while others are also mouth brooders.
Rift Lake Water Conditioning
To recreate the hard alkaline water required by these fish, shell grit or coral sand should be added to your gravel or used exclusively for the bottom. African Rift lake sand is also becoming popular, but can show up detritus badly. Good quality African Cichlid water conditioners like the Seachem Rift Lake Salt and Buffers are a real advantage in creating the right water conditions.
There are several products that will remove both chlorine and ammonia, but the best value is….Amquel Instant water Detoxifier.
Setting up African Rift Lake Cichlids
As African cichlids come from rocky shoreline areas of the lakes, we suggest that intricate rockwork form the basis of your set-up arranged to form area’s with numerous caves. The rockwork should be predominantly built up around the back and sides to leave a communal amphitheatre where all the interaction and displays take place. A+RR Inc has a large range of rocks which are extremely attractive and offer plenty of hiding places. Plants are not essential to your African community tank because African Cichlids, being omnivorous, will eat your plants except for something such as Anubias. One option here is to cut some holes in barnacle rock which allows the greenery to be seen but protects the base in the gravel from the fish. Plastic plants instead make a good addition.
Adding African Rift Lake Cichlids
Try to crowd your African cichlids without taxing your filtration and water change management. This stops individuals from becoming too dominant and harassing others.
We find it best to start with small to medium sizes of fishes of several species in groups of four.
(4 Electric Blue, 4 Electric Yellows, 4 Venustus, 4 Red Empress)
Of the Lake Malawi fishes, the most common species are Zebras, Pindani, Lombardoi and others. People often start with these species as they are cheaper and show color while still young. Many hobbyists progress to the slightly more expensive and spectacular ‘Haplochromis’ group, like Electric Blues, Red Empress and the Peacocks where only the males exhibit the most amazing color as they mature. In general Take Tanganyika fishes are a bit more expensive and comprise some of the most sought after species like Frontosa, “Lanprologus” and Trheus.
Feeding African Cichlids the right type of foods is very important. African Cichlids have extremely long intestinal tracts, like omnivores, which means that foods (meat, worms etc.) will take a long time to digest. Inappropriate foods will rot in their stomachs causing bloating, sickness and sometimes death. For this reason foods with a large proportion of spirulina and vegetables are best. Our favourites, HBH VEGE or Cichlid Flakes and Pellets are perfect. Super Bits are also eagerly taken but we do not like to feed Super Bits exclusively, but rather combined with Spirulina based foods. Frozen bloodworm and brine shrimp are also good for most species, but meats and live blackworm are definitely no-no’s.
The American Cichlid Tank
American Cichlids are larger growing and slower moving than their African cousins. They are also far more predatory and are happy with a higher protein than Africans. For these reasons we do not recommend keeping American and African Cichlids together. Of course there is always the odd exception.
The natural habitat of the Central and South American cichlids is quite different to that of Africans. Logs and branches in general replace rocky outcrops still having a background that can provide safe secure retreats are important. We feel darker gravel such as the Red Gravel blend suits the reflective colors of Americans, compared to lighter substrates spawners who will form a pair bond. Spawns can produce hundreds of fry, the parents will try to protect and nurture their babies instinctively. It is not uncommon for pairs of fish to spawn in the community tank, although it is unlikely that the parents will be able to protect babies from the hordes. Most American cichlids have also been in the hobby for a lot longer than Africans. Species like Oscars and Red Devils have become household names.
American Cichlids are quite tolerant of water conditions, but a pH close to neutral and low nitrates (regular water changes) provide a comfortable environment. Always treat new tap water well with XXXXXX and XXXXX as with all fish.
Setting Up for American Cichlids
Use plenty of logs. Submerge some rocks into the substrate and add more structure on top... Do not be concerned by excessive color from new logs as this will become less with regular water changing. You could use charred wood from A+RR Inc here as well. Plastic plants attached to small crevice rock will provide a splash of color. Of course you can use one of the Amazon or Cichlid mansion backgrounds that will create a stunning base for you to expand on.
Adding American Cichlids
Try to set up a large variety of young fish to grow up together. That way you will have far more compatible large fish when they grow up. Our favourite species are Oscars, Red Devils, Texas , Firemouths, Severums etc. Give them plenty of room to grow. Often people will ask, “What can I put with my large Oscar who has lived alone for a year?” if you put another single fish in, there is every chance that the new inhabitant will be killed. We advised it is better to trade in large fish and start with a community of smaller Americans.
American cichlids will consume a large variety of foods. HBH make a range of American specific cichlid foods. Advance the size of the pellets as your young fish grow. A wide variety of frozen foods are recommended in conjunction with live foods including feeder fish. Only offer feeder fish as a treat, otherwise they will become fussy about accepting prepared foods.
The most popular dwarf cichlids are the Apistogrammas and Microgeophagus (Rams) from South America and the Pelvicachromis (Kribensis) from the Congo River system of Africa . These dwarf cichlids are popular community fish that may spawn in a community tank and exercise parental care over their young if there is enough cover. They prefer a good varied diet of prepared frozen and live foods.
Discuses are a popular group of cichlids kept by enthusiasts all over the world. Many claim Discus are the “King of Fishes”. Discus are definitely a fish that require some experience, although they may be kept in a community tank. The major requirement to keeping Discus well is good water management and the best foods. Discuses seem to metabolize quickly and need to be fed often with high quality prepared and frozen foods. The best are Tetra Bits with daily frozen food like Beef Heart and Liver and Discus Dinner. Once Discus are feeding well they are competitive and hardy.
Discus are usually happy in low nitrate water with pH slightly acidic and soft water which is very warm 29-32 Degrees Celcius. For breeding Discus, the fish need to be well conditioned on the best foods. The best range of water conditioners for Discus are the Seachem range of Discus Buffers.
The major problem with Discus is their susceptibility to parasites like gill flakes as well as intestinal worms and flagellates. We advise regular treatments for parasites with General Cure or Worm-Rid, especially after Discus are newly purchased or moved. Intestinal worms are best treated with Worm-Rid and flagellates with Octozin. An inexpensive, yet very good book is the Barron’s Discus Fishes.
Enjoy setting up your tank and we love receiving your pictures of the products from A+RR Inc (Aquarium + Reptile Rocks Inc).
Hope you found this article informative and enjoy setting up your aquarium.If you are after something truly unique for your aquarium you should check out the range of lightweight artificial feature rocks ,backgrounds and tank inserts from Aquarium + Reptile Rocks Inc. http://www.aquariumrocks.biz
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