African cichlids are definitely one of the most popular freshwater aquarium setups. They are very colorful, active, hardy, and relatively small. They do however come with their own unique challenges and requirements. This article will focus on Lake Malawi specifically since this is usually what people are talking about when they say African cichlids.
Lake Malawi is a landlocked lake in the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Because it is landlocked there is not drain so all the minerals dissolved in the water coming in to the lake stay in the lake. Over time they built up to concentrations much higher than can be found in almost any other freshwater on Earth. These minerals are what make the lake so abnormally hard and alkaline. It is home to 10% of the species of freshwater fish, including approximately 1,000 species of cichlids alone. Different sources provide different ages for the lake, but 100,000-200,000 years seems most common.
Three Types of Lake Malawi Cichlids:
There are three main types of cichlids in Lake Malawi: mbuna (pronounced by the natives as mboo-nuh with just a hint of the m at the beginning almost silent, not um-boo-nuh, and since it is a native word I think it is most appropriate to pronounce it their way), peacocks, and haps.
The mbunas are what most people think of when they think of African cichlids. They have a very rounded face, are very territorial, and love their rockwork. They are primarily algivores eating the algae that grows on the rocks, as well as a small amount of small invertebrates that grow in and among the algae. They are sensitive to foods with too much protein, especially low quality/hard to digest protein. This is why I only recommend New Life Spectrum for them, discussed more below in the diet section. Mbunas range in size from about 4″ up to about 7″ for a large bumblebee. The lake has lots of waves and action so the mbunas love flow. If you already have or come across a good deal on reef type pumps use them, they will love it.
Peacocks, Aulonocara spp., are from deep down in the lake where the water is much calmer (normal freshwater flow is fine). They have a slanted face and larger eyes. They sit still above the sand substrate (a must for them) and use their lateral line system to sense movement of small infauna in the sand (small invertebrates), then grab a big mouthful of sand and hopefully the food as well. They will sift through your sand all day in search of food (which keep it nice and clean, but almost any cichlid will do this). The peacocks aren’t nearly as aggressive as the mbunas and tend not to do well in mixed tanks. Unless it is a massive tank they do much better without any mbunas in the tank, but even in big tanks they would probably do better on their own. If you are doing a smaller tank their more peaceful nature make them ideal. I think they also have the best colorations, male peacocks are stunning fish and the best if you want something that looks like saltwater.
Open water haps are the largest type, and the reason why the mbunas stick so close to the rocks. They are open water piscivores (fish eaters). They range from 6-12″+ and are therefore not suitable for smaller tanks.
What is a Species?
This brings up an interesting issue of how a species is defined. Depending on the definition used a species includes all populations that produce fertile offspring. In this case most of the cichlids in the Lake Malawi are only a few species. A different definition specifies that they produce fertile offspring in the wild. In nature the different ‘species’ do have reproductive isolation from each other, although many factors could cause changes that could alter this (a cove being used by humans forces one species closer to another, where they start interbreeding again, etc.). If the only major differences are coloration, slight differences in size, and perhaps exact tooth shape, are they really different species?
Also, keep in mind that most African cichlids in stores are from farms that are many generations removed from the wild. I personally don’t worry about getting ‘true’ specimens, but if you do then you will want wild caught (which I discourage these days, there are too many captive sources for these fish to still take them from the wild over a preference) or buy them from a breeder who has kept ‘true lines’.
Tank size is definitely a major factor for an African cichlid tank. As always bigger is better. Bigger tanks work a lot better for African cichlids. The 220 display we had at the shop is the best running African cichlid tank I have ever worked with. Even though it wasn’t crammed full of rocks, the size of it alone gave them enough space to get away from each other and get along. We had some rocks piled up along the middle, and a pile against the back on each end, which was viewable from behind. I highly suggest doing a six foot tank if at all possible. It helps a lot.
Sand is definitely the ideal substrate for African cichlids, especially if you will have any peacocks. They naturally feed on things in the sand, so to deny them of this is cruel. For more information on sand please read: Sand as a Superior Substrate.
Some people recommend using crushed coral as a substrate to help harden the water. This can work, but putting it in the filter would be much better. It is too course to use as a substrate, especially with peacocks. It will also trap a lot of debris just like gravel.
African cichlids will probably be the tank that really tests your filtration. They are naturally big active fish and therefore produce a lot of waste. I don’t think they really produce more waste per weight, they are just bigger and bulkier than something like a neon tetra. I do think that the same weight of neon tetras in the same size tank fed the same amount of food at the same temperature would produce just as much waste as cichlids. As long as you actually clean them enough (at least once per month) canisters are best. I prefer Fluval. Whatever filter you get make sure it is rated for at least twice the actual tank volume. If you are doing mbunas in a 75 or larger or peacocks in a 125 or larger go for the Fluval FX5 or FX6. We had the FX5 on the 220 at the shop and I can’t believe how great of a job it did. The tank was crystal clear with no issues.
Sand bottom and rocks. For mbunas put in as much rock as you can. I usually try to have a pile at each end with another pile in the middle if I can fit it. This helps break up their lines of sight and allow them to get away from each other. I love cichlid stones, the hollow ceramic rocks with little openings in them. They provide excellent spots for them to hide and get away from each other. I think they look very natural, but obviously the door may bother some aquarists (certainly not the fish). I don’t like any rough rocks like lava rock. Inevitably the fish chase each other around and sooner or later someone will scrape themselves up pretty badly. I stick to smoother sandstone type rocks and alternate them with slate. PVC pipes are also excellent for providing hides and passages. You can bury them in the sand with an opening at each end sticking out above the sand, put silicone all over them and cover them in sand or crushed coral so they blend in better, or create whole networks of pipe and then pile rock in front of it all to keep the tank looking good. For peacocks you can do the same style, but with less rock (more open sand area).
You can buy rock by the case from almost any local fish store. Decide which types you want and offer to prepay in advance to special order it. You should get a better price than their per pound option since it is in bulk and they don’t have to sit on it at all (easy money for them).
If you want to try some fake plants, go for it. Sometimes they get too rough with them, tear them up, or move them around, but it can definitely work. A few accents of fake plants really helps the look of an otherwise all rockwork tank.
Diet is very important with African cichlids, especially mbunas. They are sensitive to the level and quality of protein. Too much low quality protein can cause Malawi bloat. I have never had this happen with New Life Spectrum. It is also very good at making their already amazing colors even better. Best of all it will actually feed all of them (you don’t need one food for the mbunas, one for peacocks, etc.). Just feed New Life Spectrum exclusively. For more information on it please read: New Life Spectrum Fish Food.
I am on the fence about their water. In general I don’t mess with water. I let it stay as it is naturally in the tap. I focus on high water quality (big weekly water changes) rather than exact parameters. That said, African cichlids do come from a quite unique natural water chemistry so if you decide to add special cichlid lake salt and a buffer to increase the KH/pH I wouldn’t argue against you. Although they evolved in the hard water for thousands of years, most of the cichlids in our tanks have been raised on farms for many generations. I think they can thrive either way, but I do think they tend to do at least a little better with cichlid lake salt and buffer (at least if your tap is normal). If you do decide to alter it you will be aiming for a pH of 8.2. Stick to the directions for the cichlid lake salt (it’s a smaller dose than you would use for treating stress with aquarium salt). If you have any species that aren’t native to such hard water I would skip the salt and buffer though. It is only beneficial if it benefits all the fish in the tank, not so if it forces some away from their ideal parameters (such as a bristlenose pleco).
You may decide to alter it in a more passive way by adding some crushed coral to the filter. This will raise the KH/pH and keep it stable, although not usually as much as buffers can. This is especially helpful if your tap is neutral to acidic
Due to their aggression, activity, and tank setup selecting tankmates can be difficult, but if done properly you can have more than just cichlids. In general cichlids are surprisingly tolerant of non-cichlids. They may flip out over another cichlid, but ignore a pleco or catfish. The best tankmates will be Synodontis catfish. Other great options include jewel cichlids (the best looking one I have ever seen was in an African cichlid tank), convict cichlids (not usually a pick with such colorful fish, but if anyone can hold their own with mbunas they can, and they like the hard water too), bristlenose plecoes (best if the cichlids grow up with them around, rather than sticking a little one in an established cichlid tank), small species of bichirs, spiney eels (such as peacock and tiretrack, although Lake Tanganyika has an endemic (found nowhere else) species of spiney eel, the Tanganyika eel), and many others. I do not recommend mixing in Lake Tanganyika cichlids. They are too laid back compared to Lake Malawi cichlids (it may work with peacocks). They are also more picky about their water being much harder than usual.
Most likely breeding will happen in your African cichlid tank sooner or later. Unless you go out of your way to choose all males (more colorful if there is a difference) and are actually 100% effective, it will happen. They are mouth brooders so you will see a female with a full mouth like she is holding pellets after you just fed only you didn’t just feed. She won’t eat while holding, then will release the babies once they are big enough. If you have enough little nooks and crannies you will probably have a few babies smart enough to stay safe from all the mouths in the tank (slate with no more than 1/2″ gap between two pieces is perfect). Sexual dimorphism (visual difference between the genders) is different in different species. In peacocks the juveniles and females are a drab gray, only the males develop the spectacular coloration (drab in comparison to the males, they are still nice looking fish). In some mbunas the juveniles and females are one color, while mature males are another (blue and then only mature males are yellow for example). In other mbunas the number of egg spots on the anal fin can tell you. 1-4 is female, 4-12+ is male.
If you intend on breeding you will want to be much more selective about what fish are in the tank (ideally just the breeding group, usually one male to 3-8+ females), and have a separate tank to raise the fry. You can strip a female of the eggs or babies if you catch her holding and can actually catch her in the tank.