The Ultimate Guide to African Cichlids
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African Cichlids are a great fish species for both the seasoned and novice aquarists as they are fairly hardy and can adjust in different environments. It is important to mention that African Cichlids are more aggressive so it’s important to build your aquarium, and their tank mates, around them!
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When you embark on your fish sojourn it’s imperative that you do your research — cultivating a thriving aquarium takes much more than buying a fish tank, filling it with water, and adding the fish you like to it.
Fish, including African Cichlids, take a lot of work!
Before your inaugural aquarium is established, let’s examine what it takes!
If you’re new to the fish world, a whole new landscape awaits you — luckily, there are many resources and people out there who want to see your success, including The iFISH Store!
Once you sift through and wade the waters of owning fish, you’ll begin to get a knack for how things are done and expand on your aquarium, but the first year will come with a steep learning curve, so be ready!
If you approach your fish hobby haphazardly, fish will die.
You see this happen with little kids who go to the pet store for a goldfish and with an adult alike who decides that day to start a freshwater aquarium.
We understand the draw of buying exotic and colorful fish, but without some knowledge and an established fish tank, it’s better you learn the basics and plan a later date to embark on your fish adventure!
Get the aquarium right!
Set yourself up for success and keep your fish alive when you research the following:
- Aquarium size
- Filters Heaters
- Air pump
- Water condition
- Fish food
Fish are not a low-maintenance pet.
Caring for fish, African Cichlids included, takes your full commitment and nothing less! While you may not have the hassle of having to take your fish in for vaccinations or out for a daily walk, it does require you to keep an eye on the aquarium and address any issues as needed. The initial cost can be expensive. Beginning your fish hobby may be more expensive than you first imagined — again, it goes beyond just a fish tank, water, and fish. There are separate pieces you have to invest in that we mentioned above, in addition to any aquascapes you want to create.
Add African Cichlids to Your Aquarium!
As we’ve touched upon, starting an aquarium takes care and maintenance to keep your fish happy and thriving. African Cichlids are a great introduction to a freshwater aquarium because not only are they stunning, but they are a very hardy and adaptable fish. When an optimal pH is met and their habitat is set up properly, an African Cichlid can begin to flourish — but don’t stop here! While African Cichlids are adaptable, they are quite unique and require a good amount of care. An alkaline and rocky landscape are essential for African Cichlids, and beyond that, they tend to be aggressive, territorial, and predatory fish which can be difficult to care for. In the wild, their color pigmentation denotes their dominance — the brighter the fish the more dominant and the more muted or pale fish, the more submissive.
For further information on potential tank mates for African Cichlids, check out our detailed Freshwater Fish Compatibility Charts.
African Cichlids: The Aquarium Environment
The natural habitat of African Cichlids is cavernous and rocky, so it’s vital that you replicate this closely. It’s important to include rocks and rock caves for them to hide and spawn. This cichlid species enjoys digging and organizing the rocks, so a gravel layer should be included at the bottom of the tank. Pro tip: Use silicone or aquarium-safe glue to secure any rocks or structures you don’t want African Cichlids digging at. Since African Cichlids naturally dig, use finer gravel to avoid them scratching their scales. Creating an aquascape is beautiful, but try and keep the plantlife minimal in an aquarium with African Cichlids because they like to dig them up and eat them, which can become expensive to have to keep replacing. Solid plants you can incorporate include Anubias, Java fern, and Amazon Swords.
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Tank size - While it’s recommended that you have an aquarium size of at least 30 gallons, 50 gallons is the gold standard to accommodate and help reduce their aggressive behavior. Use this as a recommendation but always double check with experts about your specific tank and take into consideration what color of African Cichlids — electric yellow are smaller than blue — you have and how many you have.
A 30-gallon tank is suitable for one, small cichlid, and it’s recommended to add three gallons per cichlid you add, and remember, always educate yourself on the cichlid you’re getting because some can grow much larger than others.
Pro tip: Consider an external filter instead of an under-gravel filter because of cichlids digging nature, they can ruin under-gravel filters more easily.
The water -The water that houses African Cichlids should be dynamic and moving to mimic the current from a river, so implement a water or air pump to achieve this element.
The water should not contain any ammonia, which requires regular water maintenance. Ammonia is a by-product of fish waste, so changing the water frequently is a must.
Water temperature - The water temperature should be between 75 and 85 degrees F.
Aquarium lighting - Because African Cichlids like to dig and seek coverage under caves, no bright or intense lighting is needed.
The pH - The pH should always be alkaline, between 7.8 and 8.6 to keep your cichlids healthy, and because they naturally are found in hard water which contains an abundance of dissolved minerals, it’s important to not use soft water in an African Cichlid tank.
African Cichlids can survive both neutral and acidic environments — though it’s not recommended — however, this makes them susceptible to illness. If you’re not sure how to achieve this mineral balance, connect with a professional fish care expert.
What to Feed Your African Cichlid
African cichlids are omnivorous, so there is a wide variety of food they can eat which includes blood worms, brine shrimp, insect larvae, algae, etc. African Cichlids tend to process food at a slower rate — they have long intestinal tracts — than other fish which make, frozen, pellet, live, and flake food fitting for them.
You can feed them in a variety of ways such as once a day in a large quantity, or two to three times in smaller quantities spread throughout the day.
Give African Cichlids at least 30 minutes to consume their food, and if any is leftover, consider decreasing the amount of food you’re giving them.
African Cichlid Aggression
As we’ve mentioned before, African Cichlids tend to be quite aggressive, so it’s crucial to understand this if you choose to introduce them into your freshwater aquarium.
African Cichlids are aggressive towards other cichlids, and this increases with two cichlids of the same size. This happens because it is perceived that the other is competition in regards to food, mates, and territory, so, if you want to keep more than one African Cichlid, you’ll have to get varying sizes.
Tips For Reducing Nitrate Levels in Your Freshwater Aquarium
High nitrate issues can become a problem when routine aquarium maintenance and water changes are neglected. Failure to address this issue can result in sick fish and may even result in a loss of fish. One of the most important things when keeping African Cichlids is ensuring a clean, healthy tank. You’ll notice when the tank is hygienic, the fish will become more lively, eat better, and their color may become more vibrant. We all know we feel better when our homes are clutter-free and clean, and the same is true for African Cichlids! As nitrate levels climb to 100 ppm, it begins to put stress on the fish impairing their immune systems and making them more prone to disease, and it also affects their ability to reproduce. High nitrate levels also impair growth in young fish by decreasing the amount of available oxygen.
What can you do to better prevent high nitrate levels?Clean your aquarium regularly. Implement more live plants. Feed your fish appropriately (don’t overfeed). It’s important when embarking on a major aquarium overhaul, that you really pay attention to the pH in your fish tank. A pH combined with the added stress of a massive tank change can be detrimental to your fish, so carefully monitor the pH as you go about this project. There are many products on the market that can help you achieve an ideal pH, so check with your local pet store. The fish will be happy and this will hopefully mitigate any pH shock that results in fatalities for more sensitive fish.
The Nitrate Reduction Method
While it is common to improve nitrate levels in your aquarium by performing a series of water changes, it can take an extended time to reduce the levels to zero. The following method can promptly achieve near-zero nitrate levels in a shorter amount of time. This is why a series of water changes may not be your best option. Reducing your tank by 20% and then filling it to 40%, you’ve already improved your levels significantly, close to half. By filling it 100%, the nitrate levels will be 20% lower than the original levels. When you do this and reduce the water by 40% and then refill with 20%, you reduce the nitrate level by 10%. Do this once more and the nitrate level is reduced further to 5% of what you began with.
Rapid Nitrate Reduction
People may fear that when you quickly change the water it will send the fish into shock, but more importantly, you will be reducing the harmful water rapidly, which is much more beneficial for the aquarium environment.
For example, say your home has a gas leak and it’s filling your home — there are many dangers attributed to this, but breathing in the fumes causes many problems. Imagine telling a family that instead of opening all the windows or doors to let fresh air in, they should only open one because the rapid evacuation of fumes is more harmful.
The is the same for the fish in the toxic aquarium — the longer they’re in a harmful environment, the more damage could result. The gold standard in keeping your fish tank nitrate-free is regular aquarium maintenance.
If you’ve tried many things and the nitrate levels continue to rise, talk to an aquarium expert about your situation or try the rapid water change method.
One other consideration about this method, if you’re worried about the shock, you could try doing it over a period of days, until the nitrate levels are lowered.
Now that we have a solid understanding of African Cichlids and the importance of keeping your aquarium free from harmful nitrates, let’s further examine some common mistakes that beginner aquarium enthusiasts make.
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Adding Your Fish Too Soon
Building an aquarium is so exciting — you have the aquarium and the fish and you want to unite the two right away, but this is a rookie mistake! Before adding your fish, ensure your tank is completely stabilized.
We know the conditions that African Cichlids require, so it’s imperative to do this first and then you can add them to an aquarium environment you know they’ll thrive in.
Going Too Small
Aquarium sizes can be intimidating and it’s often recommended that beginners start with a small tank, but the truth is, you need to invest in a tank that is appropriate for the African Cichlids.
What rookies may not know, is that in larger tanks, the water parameters are much easier to manage.
Inadvertent Poisoning...It can be quite easy to accidentally poison your fish as a beginner.
Many that are new at aquariums tend to do the following:
- Overfeed their fish which produces an excess of nitrogen
- Use too many chemicals to try and get the tank just right
- Not knowing the nitrogen cycle
There are many things that may seem logical to a beginner, but that should be avoided or always double checked before doing it. People will turn off aquarium filters at night because the hum keeps them up — for African Cichlids, this disrupts their natural environment of a gently moving stream and it can allow overgrowth and harmful toxins to build up.
So, a heads up, always keep your filter running! Not incorporating an aquascape using live plants is vital to the health of your cichlids — it prevents algae growth and it helps keep the water oxygenated.
It may seem like adding plants is just another aspect to make freshwater aquarium keeping even more difficult, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Not Investing in a Proper Filter
We’ll emphasize again, the aquarium environment is so important and this includes a filter that is proper for the type of fish you’re keeping. Avoid using a cheap filter that only turns over the water two to three times per hour, and invest in the minimum of one that does it at least four times an hour to keep the water fresh and your fish healthy.
Not Checking The Water Consistently
The water is the fish’s home and neglecting it can result in dead fish. When you begin an aquarium, setting it up isn’t something you do once, it’s something you have to do on a regular basis — in fact, doing it once a day is never a bad habit to get into.
When you check your aquarium check things such as:
- Water hardness
- pH levels
If you do have a fish suddenly die, this is a good opportunity to check the water and problem solve what could have happened. Adding too many fish once you start can disrupt the water chemistry and impact the nitrogen cycle. It is recommended that you only add three fish at a time to your aquarium.
After you add the fish, check the nitrogen cycle and then add more. There are many common mistakes that beginners make so it’s important to always check before you do something.
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