Maintaining a Healthy African Cichlid Tank

Prized for their color, African cichlids make stunning aquarium pets.
i african cichlid image by Earl Robbins from

African cichlids are native to one of three lakes in Africa: Malawi, Tanginika and Victoria. A healthy tank relies on much more than water quality and temperature. All aspects work together to make sure your fish are happy and healthy.

Water Quality

African cichlids, being freshwater fish living in specific types of water in their natural habitats, prefer sometimes very specific types of water in their aquarium homes. The pH, for example, must be maintained between 7.6 and 8.8, depending on the lake in which your cichlids originated. Water temperature should ideally be around 76 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit. They also prefer fairly soft water, and therefore you will need to keep a conditioner on hand to ensure your water is not too hard. Also, you should change 10 percent of the water on a weekly basis. Unlike some other types of fish, large water changes can damage the cichlid community in your tank. Heaters, thermometers, filters and other materials are readily available at pet- and aquarium-supply stores.

Decor and Hiding Places

Depending on the type of African cichlids you have living in your community, you'll need to be very careful about what types of decorations you put in your tank. Many African cichlids are large fish, but even with their large size they prefer to have hiding spots. Others may be extremely "playful" or adventurous fish who prefer to knock things over in the tank and do some "redecorating" on their own terms. Because of this, you should never place items that can break the sides of your tank within falling distance of the aquarium glass. You also want your fish to have plenty of space to move around freely, while still being able to maintain their own territories. African cichlids are typically fairly aggressive fish, so owning more than one can mean trouble if there's not enough room for them to co-inhabit.

Plants and Substrate

Again, not all African cichlids come from the same lakes or even the same areas of a single lake. Some are rock-dwellers, while others prefer more open areas with sandy substrates. Haps, for example, prefer the sandy floors. Sand and rock are the two most common substrates for the bottom of an African cichlid tank, but you'll need to know which one your cichlids prefer. Live plants should be the same types found in their natural habitats. You can also decorate with artificial, plastic plants designed for use in aquariums. When aquascaping your tank, keep focal points in mind, as well as making sure the tank is not too crowded or bare with the addition of the plants.

Tank Mates

Some fish are great companions for cichlids; others, however, may be too aggressive or end up as a snack. Because of their aggression, African cichlids may kill other fish while protecting their territories, young or food. Compatibility varies greatly in different types of African cichlids, but as a general rule you can put the following fish in an African cichlid tank: danios, plecostamus, larger tetras, labeo sharks and rainbowfish. To limit aggression between the cichlids, avoid putting African cichlids of the same type or color in the same tank.

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