African Cichlids Care Guide and Tank Setup

Looking for bright, colorful fish with larger than life personalities? Consider an African Cichlid aquarium! These beauties provide enough vibrant colors, fun personalities, and intriguing variations to keep fish keepers of all skill levels invested. 

Keep in mind, like any fish, African Cichlids have their own unique sets of issues, so read along and learn everything you need to know about setting up your own African Cichlid tank. 

All About African Cichlids

Behavior & Temperament

In the fish keeping world, there are three types of fish temperaments: peaceful, semi-aggressive, and aggressive. African Cichlids tend to range from semi-aggressive to aggressive. 

However, their aggressive nature does not necessarily mean that your African Cichlid needs to be alone. African Cichlids can have many tankmates, given enough room. 

There are two primary types of Cichlids, African Cichlids, and New World/South American Cichlids. Both are aggressive and often do not mix well together. They are usually separated at fish stores. Keep in mind that just because they look similar and are both Cichlids, it does not mean they will mix well. 

African Cichlids have the best chance of success with other African Cichlids. Occasionally, a particularly aggressive African Cichlid will refuse to accommodate tankmates. It’s best to remove this fish as soon as you recognize the problem. 

Some aquarists choose to keep one African Cichlid species to avoid fighting; this is a reasonable precaution, although hardly necessary. With enough room and areas for hiding, African Cichlids can do well with different African Cichlid species. 

When it comes to keeping them with other non-Cichlid species of fish, know that you are limited in your options. Tankmates swimming in the open are likely to be bullied or possibly eaten. It’s possible to have success with larger types of tetras, but there is always risk involved. 

An ideal tankmate that is not in the African Cichlid family is a bottom-dwelling fish; this includes plecostomus, loaches, and possibly freshwater sharks. 

When adding tankmates, keep water quality in mind. Cichlids have a tolerance for high nitrates, because of the heavy amount of waste that they produce. A tankmate that requires ideal water quality conditions will not make for good tankmates. 

Diet

Specific African Cichlid species have different dietary needs, so do additional research on your varieties for the best chance of longevity and optimal health. They’re usually omnivores, with more carnivorous tendencies overall.

A varied diet offers optimal nutrition. Shrimp pellets or cichlid pellets are excellent food choices for most varieties. If your Cichlid hangs around the bottom of the aquarium, try offering shrimp wafers or algae wafers. From personal experience, certain Cichlids enjoy algae wafers more than others. It seems to boil down to an individual’s preference. 

Cichlids enjoy vegetables on occasion and can eat lettuce, broccoli, nori, and peas. As I mentioned earlier, some Cichlids seem to enjoy vegetables more than others!

For frozen foods, consider frozen vegetables as well as bloodworms and brine shrimp. These foods should be fed only occasionally due to the likelihood of excess food being left in the substrate, causing water quality issues. 

Live food is also an option for African Cichlids, including minnows and insects. Proceed with caution, though. Feeder fish often carry transmittable diseases. If you would still like to feed live fish, consider quarantining feeder fish before giving them to your African Cichlids. 

How long do they live?

It depends on the individual species and the level of care. Most African Cichlids live an average of eight years, but some species can live upwards of 15 years. 

Different Types of African Cichlids

Malawi Cichlid

This species comes from Lake Malawi in Malawi, a country in Southeast Africa. This lake is home to over 850 different species of Cichlids and counting. The huge diversity of Cichlids found in this lake is due to females’ selective nature.

The larger, brighter, more colorful males are allowed to reproduce, leading to various Cichlids species in a vibrant variance of colors and characteristics. 

Malawi Peacock Cichlid

Peacock Cichlids are common among fishkeeping enthusiasts, often coming in red and blue variations. Peacock Cichlids are known for their iridescent color. They’re originally from Lake Malawi and prefer sandy and rocky areas.

Setting up rocky shelves and caves in your aquarium will not only help them feel more comfortable but it will help break up any aggressive behaviors. 

Malawi Peacock Cichlid

Malawi Zebra Cichlid

Zebra Cichlids are similar to Peacock Cichlids, however they have a different color pattern. They come in red or blue colors with stripes along the sides of their bodies and bright dots on their caudal fin.

Hailing from Lake Malawi, they are commonly aggressive fish when not given proper room and decoration. Zebra Cichlids enjoy rocky shelves and caves in their aquarium to establish as territory. 

Malawi Zebra Cichlid

Tanganyika Cichlid

Lake Tanganyika is another large lake in Africa that is 420 miles long and four miles deep. An impressive lake, it also boasts a remarkable diversity of fish, including 250 species of Cichlids. Tanganyika Cichlids are often found at great depths compared to other varieties.

Overall, they’re less common in the pet trade. Similar to the Cichlids of Malawi, they prefer sandy bottoms and rocky shelves and caves to feel comfortable in their home aquarium. 

Tanganyika Goby Cichlid

Tanganyika Goby Cichlids are an ancient fish species with a humorous face.

They have elongated snouts with blue puckered lips that give them a somewhat goofy look. They are called “Goby” due to their lack of swim bladder, so you can find them hanging around the bottom of your tank. This Cichlid requires hard water and naturally lives in water with a pH of 9. 

Tanganyika Goby Cichlid

Tanganyika Tropheus Cichlid

Treopheus Cichlids do best in same-species tanks due to their aggressive nature. The Tropheus Cichlid is usually dark with a strike of color across the body, with too many color variations to name.

Tropheus are particularly sensitive to water quality and develop bloat quickly. They do not tolerate massive water changes but can accept small water changes throughout the week and special attention to water parameters.

Tanganyika Tropheus Cichlid

West African Cichlid

Typically a smaller species of Cichlid, these fish are rarely found in fishkeeping communities, with the exception of Kribensis. Kribensis only live an average of five years but are a much more peaceful African Cichlid.

They can be kept with other fish species, although they can be nippy. They are found in Niger Delta and enjoy cave areas. Their water quality parameters are more lenient than some of their counterparts. 

Setting up your Cichlids Fish Tank 

Aquarium Size

Aquarium size may range from 30 gallons to 100 gallons up. It’s highly dependent on the amount of livestock in the aquarium and the specific species found in the aquarium. For an average African Cichlid aquarium, 55-75 gallons is adequate. 

Cichlids are heavy waste producers, and larger aquariums allow more room for error when considering water quality. 

Another consideration is the maximum size of each individual. African Cichlid sizes vary significantly, between an average of four to ten inches at maturity. 

Researching water quality parameter strictness and mature size of the fish is essential when deciding on tank size. 

Type of Substrate

Siltier or fine substrate is ideal. A pound per gallon of water allows plenty of room for your African Cichlid to burrow while maintaining water conditions. A variety of substrates work. 

For higher pH, crushed coral helps to raise pH. Another great tool on the market is a specific African Cichlid substrate by Caribesea, which helps maintain water quality parameters for African Cichlid.

Filtration

Heavy filtration is necessary in any Cichlid tank. Overhead filters are adequate, but canister filters or sumps are excellent choices for filtration. Consider the load and size of your fish before committing to a filtration system. 

For example, if you have two young zebra cichlids in a 55-gallon tank, your filtration needs might not be the same as a 75-gallon tank with a variety of African Cichlids species. 

Keep in mind that even though these fish reside in lakes, they are used to a heavy flow rate. Consider a flow rate of 4-6 times the volume of your aquarium. 

For filter media, I would suggest carbon or GFO (granular ferrous oxide) in your aquarium. Carbon mixed with zeolite works well for new aquariums because it helps prevent mini-cycles or ammonia spikes. 

Consider adding lava rock or other porous rock to your filter or into the tank itself. These porous rocks will hold beneficial bacteria.

Make sure to check your water quality parameters regularly. Things go south quickly in a neglected Cichlid tank due to their heavy waste production.

Lighting

African Cichlids typically live in dark conditions and so they do well with dark tanks. Still, lighting is entirely up to preference. They’ll do well with a wide variety of lights as long as the lights are on a timer. Aim for around eight hours of light a day.

Newer lights, including fluorescents, are less likely to raise the temperature in your water. Fluorescents are also cheaper and offer less intense lighting. 

On the other hand, LEDs are more energy-efficient and, with multiple colors, will show off the colors of your fish quite nicely. 

If you decide to grow plants, I would suggest an LED light explicitly made for plants. The spectrum of colors displays the fish well and gives your plants the spectrum of colors they need to grow. 

Consider lights with nighttime features, or even additional features like thunderstorm settings. These are not only fun for the aquarist but also offer enrichment to your fish. 

Plants and Decorations

Unless you have a Cichlid particularly set on devouring your plants, you can have plants with your African Cichlid!

These plants need to be able to tolerate more alkaline water, as well as a little nipping. Here’s a list of plants that you can grow in your African Cichlid aquarium. 

  • Anubius
  • Java Fern
  • Crinum
  • Vallisneria
  • Echinodorus
  • Cryptocoryne

Cichlid decorations can vary. Large driftwood pieces make excellent focal pieces in the aquarium. Consider curing driftwood before adding it to your aquarium, unless you would like them to release tannins. Tannins will turn the water brown and lower the pH considerably.

To cure driftwood, either boil the piece everyday submerged in water until there is no longer a brown tint to the water or soak the driftwood in a fresh batch of water every day until the water is clear. Boiling is faster.

Cichlids enjoy caves and hiding places. Consider aquarium decorations that offer plenty of room to hide or arrange rocks to provide shelters and various swimming/hiding areas. 

African Cichlids

Tank Environment for Cichlids 

Water Temperature

African Cichlids prefer warmer waters between 78 degrees Fahrenheit to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. 

In larger tanks, it’s easy to run into issues distributing heat across the tank. Use a submersible thermometer to check the temperature across the tank. If you have a hanging filter or a sump, consider keeping your heater there. Optimal placement will allow even heat distribution throughout the tank. 

Water Flow

African Cichlids might reside in lakes, but they are used to heavy water flow. Shoot for an hourly water turnover 4-6 times the volume of water in your aquarium. This information should be available on the packaging for your filter. 

African Cichlids require large amounts of oxygen and benefit from additional air pumps or wavemakers. 

In particular, if you notice your fish only hanging out near areas of heavy water flow, consider getting additional water flows into the low flow areas. 

pH, Acidity & Alkalinity Levels

The pH requirements for African Cichlids are different from most freshwater fish; they come from a very alkaline environment and prefer a pH between 7.5 to 8.5, depending on the specific species. They will tolerate a wide range of pH values but are most comfortable at higher numbers. 

To help maintain high pH in a freshwater aquarium, you can add crushed coral to the substrate whenever there is a dip in pH. There are also buffer products available that you can use to adjust and maintain pH in a Cichlid aquarium. 

Regular water changes and healthy air quality will also help maintain a higher pH. Keep in mind that sudden changes in pH are likely to shock your African Cichlid. Try to keep changes in pH at 0.3 or less at a time. They are far more likely to tolerate a low pH than a drastic change in pH. 

Consider using a buffer and keeping your KH or carbonate hardness between 160-320ppm to prevent large fluctuations in pH. 

Chlorine and Chloramines

Ideally, use RO (reverse osmosis) or DI (deionized) water for your aquarium. No matter your water source, chances are there are potential issues with the water quality. 

RO units can be bought online and set up in your house. They will require routine maintenance. If this is more than you are ready to take on, consider buying RO water from your local fish store. 

Water conditioners remove chlorine, chloramines, and heavy metals from your water. Some water conditioners contain “extras” for species-specific tanks. 

When considering water conditioners that are particularly for Cichlids, examine the differences between the species-specific water conditioner and regular water conditioner. Often the species-specific water conditioner helps to replace trace minerals that are beneficial to that species. 

Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate

The nitrogen cycle is one of the most essential parts of fish keeping. In high waste producing fish species, such as African Cichlids, you are more likely to run into issues maintaining water quality parameters. 

To ensure a proper cycle is maintained, make sure to:

  1. Thoroughly cycle your tank initially
  2. Add fish slowly
  3. Watch out for surprise mini-cycles after the initial tank cycle. 

Ideal parameters or ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate are: 

  • Ammonia: 0ppm
  • Nitrite: 0ppm
  • Nitrate: less than 20ppm

Keep in mind nitrates are harder to control in Cichlid aquariums. Consider adding a protein skimmer or nitrate-reducing foam to help maintain nitrate parameters. 

If your nitrates rise above 20ppm, add an additional water change into your weekly maintenance routine. Do not do water changes over 25% at a time, and try to space these water changes throughout the week to reduce stress on your African Cichlids. 

How to care for African Cichlids

Common Challenges with Cichlids Diseases and Treatments

Bloat

The cause of bloat is either poor water quality or from a protozoan that lives in the intestines. Regardless, bloat is common in Malawi Cichlids. Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Swollen abdomens 
  • Rapid breathing
  • Loss of appetite

Left untreated, bloat is fatal. 

Treatment includes dosing Metronidazole and performing a massive water change. 

If you are successful with treatment, look carefully into your water quality parameters. Often when water quality goes downhill, the disease becomes more prevalent. 

Freshwater Ich

Ich is one of the most feared words in the aquarium world. Freshwater Ich is available in most water sources but only appears when a fish is stressed. Ich occurs due to poor water quality or unnecessary stress. 

Ich appears as tiny white dots throughout the fish’s body, although they’re most prevalent around fins, gills, and eyes. 

If you notice ich in your aquarium, consider moving any infected fish to a quarantine tank to prevent spread and look at correcting any unsatisfactory water quality parameters. 

Treat using Herbtana or some sort of anti-parasite. Some suggest treating with an anti-bacterial in between anti-parasite treatments. 

Salt baths are a common cure but they are not always successful and they’re also very stressful for your fish. 

Hole in the Head

Hole in the Head is another issue among freshwater Cichlids. The problem is evident, with your fish having a hole or depression in the side of their head. 

The best treatment involves multiple treatments; because the cause is uncertain. Treat the tank with an anti-bacterial as well as an anti-parasite. The parasite believed to be the culprit is Hexamita, but the hole is prone to bacterial infections. 

Many professionals believe the disease is caused by poor water quality, so check and fix any water quality parameters. 

Cycling Your Cichlid Tank

There are many ways to cycle a fish tank. I would suggest a bottle of bacteria starter while you feed the tank. And when I say feed the tank, I mean to feed the tank as if you had fish in there already.

While your aquarium is running (fishless, lights and heater on) add fish food to your aquarium. This creates ammonia for the starter bacteria to eat and allows your nitrogen cycle to begin. 

Liquid ammonia can also be bought from the store and appropriately dosed into the tank, although I would still recommend starter bacteria for your aquarium. 

Often these bottles suggest waiting 24 hours, but the much safer and smarter method is to test your water regularly until it has completed cycling. 

In the first stages of cycling, you should be able to read ammonia and/or nitrite on your test kit. Soon, the testing should show nitrate. Continue cycling until only nitrate is left. 

Sometimes cycling requires additional dosing of bacteria. Make sure your tank has cycled completely before adding any fish to your aquarium. 

If adding multiple fish, add them slowly while keeping track of your water quality parameters. If you add too many fish at once and too much waste accumulates, your bacteria colony will not be able to keep up. Be wary, especially with new aquariums. 

Ammonia Poisoning

Ammonia poisoning is common in new aquariums, mainly when stocked heavily. Ammonia poisoning is when the tank is either uncycled, or the bacteria colony cannot keep up with the waste produced in the aquarium. 

The best way to treat ammonia poisoning is to take preventative measures. Here are some tips to prevent ammonia poisoning in your aquarium

  • Do not overfeed
  • Remove uneaten food or excess waste.
  • When doing water changes gravel vac to remove waste.
  • Do not add too much stock at once
  • Be careful when cleaning. You do not want to get rid of your bacteria colony completely.

If ammonia poisoning does occur, you will notice your fish gasping. Another possibility is their gills will turn red and possibly bleed. 

Perform a small water change to reduce the amount of ammonia in the tank. The only thing you can do to help the ammonia levels in your tank will be to add beneficial bacteria. In the meantime, you can add zeolite to your filtration to lower ammonia levels and help keep them regulated. 

Do not deep clean your aquarium! Add starter bacteria or gravel from a well-established tank and monitor your ammonia levels. Ammonia poisoning can be lethal to fish, but the only way to get your aquarium levels back under control will be to cycle your tank again. 

Excessive Nitrates

Almost every newcomer to Cichlids runs into this issue. Cichlids are heavy waste producers and will produce nitrates quickly. The best way to maintain ideal nitrate levels is to do regular water changes and consider heavier filtration. 

Do not perform a large water change if you are having issues with high nitrates. The sudden change in nitrates could shock your fish. Chances are they can handle the higher nitrates better than the sudden change in water chemistry. 

Monitor your nitrates and put your fish on a diet for the time being. I mean, no food and little water change every other day until the nitrate levels fall to acceptable numbers. You might find if your nitrate levels get too high, one of the first things your fish will do is stop eating. 

There are a couple of ways to help with excess nitrates, and the best way to deal with any issues is to stay on top of your water quality. 

To help stay on top of your nitrate levels, consider

  • Nitrate reducing foam
  • Multiple water changes spread throughout the week (25% or less)
  • Rethinking how much you’re feeding
  • Protein skimmers

Final Word

African Cichlids are beautiful pets with great personalities and complex behaviors.

With a careful introduction, research, they make ideal aquarium inhabitants for both beginners and advanced aquarists. Consider this care guide carefully and enjoy your colorful new pet!

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