Wednesday, October 5, 2011

African Cichlid Tank Requirements

Mbuna Tank Size

Since I have chosen to do a blog about the tropical fish species called Mbuna Malawian cichlids I will be giving tips, guidelines, and requirements for this freshwater fish only. These are the smaller of the cichlid species and so they can thrive in a smaller aquarium of approximately 20 to 30 gallons. You most certainly can go bigger if you want, but it's nice to know that you can have these beautiful colorful creatures in a normal sized tank as well, especially if you have limited space.

Malawi Cichlids Natural Habitat

How to create a lake Malawi atomosphere: Malawian cichlids have three general living preferences: rocky, sandy, or mid-water. The Mbuna's mostly prefer rocks. Use smooth rocks and pile them up to form caves and hideaways for them to take refuge in. Use just enough sand to cover the bottom of your tank because these type of cichlids like to dig and they will make piles of sand and gravel all along the bottom of the tank. And if you have too much sand they will use it to make all kinds of unsightly heaps. And even though this would be normal in an African cichlids natural habitat in Lake Malawi, it can make your tank look terrible. So adjust accordingly.

Lake Malawi Cichlid Temperature

Cichlids are very hardy fish but all fish do not do well if there are great fluctuations in temperature. Lake Malawi has water temperatures that vary from 70 to 80 degrees so a heater is probably a good idea. Smaller tanks can go with a single heater, whereas larger tanks should use two. Metal heaters are recommended
for the larger cichlids but since I am only discussing the small cichlids you can get away with using a glass heater. Follow the rule of 3 watts per gallon and don't forget to get an accurate thermometer.

African Cichlid Filtration

As was mentioned before, you will want to pack your tank with cichlids. And because of this you will need to have excellent filtration. In fact, I can't stress this enough. A canister filter is highly recommended but you need to make sure that you do not neglect regular maintenance on it. Canister filters can be messy and sometimes difficult to clean and sad to say some people because of this will put off cleaning it. You must clean it on a regular basis! Poor filtration will kill your fish! If you are going with a smaller tank, some have had success with a biological wheel filter. This type of filter provides great biological, chemical, and mechanical filtration and it can quickly and easily be cleaned.

African Cichlid Lighting

If you want to be able to see your fish clearly then you will want to have proper lighting. However, too much lighting can cause the beautiful colors of cichlids to wash out. When this happens they don't look so good. Most Malawian cichlids live deep in the lake so a lot of light doesn't penetrate down to them. So don't over do it with lights. In fact, one fluorescent bulb is recommended. If you want to really make the blue color in these fish 'pop' try using a blue actinic bulb. To keep a balanced tank when it comes to sleep turn on the lights during the daytime and off at night.

African Cichlid Substrate

Mbuna cichlids mostly live in rocky habitats so having a thin base of rocks or pebbles would work great. You can also use sand, but just remember these little critters like to dig and they will dig up the sand and make unsightly heaps. So use only a small thin layer of sand if you choose it but also mix it with some small shells, stones, or pebbles. Sand and gravel mixed is also a typical selection as it simulates the natural lake bottom. The least complicated selection is larger pebbles. Having a little bit larger substrate will make it easier to clean your tank as well. The choice is up to you.

Lake Malawi Cichlid Water Chemistry

The pH in Lake Malawi ranges from 7.8 to 8.5 which is moderately high. But this really isn't a concern since most species of cichlids are bred in captivity and they are used to lower pH levels. Most municipal water comes out of the tap at a range of 7.2 to 7.6 and this should be fine for them. Invest in a pH test kit just to make sure though. If you purchase wild caught cichlids you may need to adjust your pH level to more closely match what the cichlids are used to. And there are many products on the market to help you lower or raise the pH level of the water in your tank.

Water hardness is important to consider as well. The kH of Lake Malawi is between 12 and 13. You may need to measure the hardness of your water to see how closely you come to matching Lake Malawi. If your kH is lower you will need to raise the hardness. A thin layer of crushed coral sand is a great way to keep the water on the alkaline side. It will continually leach out minerals into the water.

(Update 11/27/11: for a complete explanation of 'what should be the salt level in cichlid tank', then check out this link SALT). The Lake where Mbuna cichlids come from has salt in it, it is best to add aquarium salt to your water. This also helps to avert against disease and lessens the stress on the fish. Go to your local pet shop and you can find salt. Salt in the water will not evaporate so only add new salt to new water when doing a water change. Read the salt specifications for tropical fish as outlined on the salt container and use the quantity that they recommend. (See update above)

Cichlid Water Changes

The single most important thing to do with an aquarium is to do regular water changes. Water changes can be done weekly or bi-weekly. If you overcrowd your tank with cichlids then it is recommended that you do a 50% water change weekly or 75% every other week. Add conditioner to your new water to dissipate chlorine from the water and add new salt to the new water (for a better understanding of salt in a cichlid tank examine this link: SALT). Use a siphon to remove all the feces at the bottom of the aquarium. It is also good to clean your filter pads at this time. If they are old replace them with new ones, but if they are still newer then dip them into the old water that has been removed from the tank. This way the nitrifying bacteria will not be harmed and put the original filter pad back into the filter. Also, make sure the new water is the same temperature as the water in the tank. Never put in cold water!

Read here for Mbuna cichlid diet.

African Cichlid Tank Requirements! Read more about African cichlids...