How to set up a cichlid tank

Cichlids are some of the most popular and fascinating of all tropical freshwater fish. They can be found from South and Central America (even in North America,) to Africa, Madagascar, India and even in Iran. They vary in shape from Angelfish and Discus to Cyprichromis, Frontosa and Pike cichlids, and range in size from just 3cm to three feet (90cm,) in length. 

Cichlids can be found in any colour from yellow, orange, red, blue, black, pink, white, stripey and even a combination of rainbow colours all on one fish. They are famous for the way they protect their fry and most will breed right in front of you in the home aquarium. 

Setting up for South Americans

South American cichlid habitats can be generalised into those from the Amazon River basin. The waters of the Amazon are by and large soft and acidic, with low pH, and are often brown in colour from tannins soaked out of wood and leaves from the forest canopy.

Here cichlids use many different feeding techniques from eating algae and plant matter to aquatic invertebrates to eating other fish. Size ranges from tiny Biotoecus and Apistogramma to Cichla, with Cichla temensis probably being the largest cichlid in the world. South American cichlid species include Angelfish, Discus, Oscars, Geophagus, Severums, Uaru, Rams, Acaras, Pike cichlids and Apistogramma. 

Apistogramma and Rams can be kept in aquariums as small as 60cm in length, but the others are large and deserving of a minimum four foot or ideally a five or six-foot long aquarium. 60cm aquariums are ok with air-powered sponge filters or small internal power filters but four foot long aquariums and larger are best with one or two external power filters. Select a thermofilter to heat the water from inside the filter, or a robust heater inside a protective housing, as Oscars can be destructive. 

Lighting can be the lighting supplied with the tank, colour enhancing bulbs to bring out red and blue colouration or you could go for the natural effect with LED spotlighting, mimicking sunlight flickering through the forest canopy of the Amazon. Subtle lighting can often bring out subtle colouration. Very bright lighting risks washing out fish colouration.  

Decor

Sand and wood are the order of the day for most Amazonian cichlids. Few plants actually grow in the Amazon river itself because of the very acidic water and low mineral content, along with the tannin-stained water which cuts down the light. Severums and Uaru will eat plants, and Oscars will destroy them, so either leave them out altogether, try tropical water lilies or floating plants, or use artificial plants. Artificial plants for reptiles can look effective in Amazon themed aquariums as they can be hung from above to simulate the forest canopy. 

Place a layer of fine sand on the bottom first like Swell Aquarium Silver sand, then bogwood laid down on the bottom. Tall bogwood branches could be placed upright to simulate tree trunks, and Discus or Angelfish may use them as spawning sites. Leaves can be added for further jungle effect.

Central American cichlids

The rivers in Central America are contrasting to the Amazon in that they are generally clear, rocky, fast-flowing and have a high pH. Many Central American cichlid species can be found in large lakes too, again with hard, alkaline water and stony bottoms.

Popular Central American cichlids include Convicts, Firemouths, Jack Dempseys, Jaguar cichlids and Midas cichlids. Most are medium, large or very large and can be aggressive and territorial, especially when breeding. Firemouths and Convicts will require at least a 90cm aquarium, with the others being best in a five-foot, six foot or larger tank. 

Central American cichlids require well filtered, well-oxygenated water so provide large internal power filters or large external power filters, especially for the larger species. Midas cichlids and their relatives can be very destructive so use a heater in a protective case or a thermofilter. Central American cichlids are prolific breeders once paired, so be ready with a sponge to place over the filter inlet (protecting fry from being sucked in,) or make ready a spare tank. 

Lighting can be bright with a slightly blue hue to simulate the blue, mineral-rich waters of Central America.  

Decor

Use large rocks, pebbles, coarse gravel and sand to simulate a Central American River or Lake, and because they like hard water, you can use a limestone-based rock to buffer the water. Centrals will use the rocks to create territories and breed on so make sure there are suitable sites at both ends of the aquarium, to accommodate more than one pair of fish. 

Live plants will be eaten and destroyed so leave them out altogether or use artificial plants.

Setting up for Malawi cichlids

Malawi cichlids are the most popular African cichlids, with their bright yellow and blue colouration being a big draw to freshwater aquarists who crave those colours or a marine look. Lake Malawi is a huge freshwater inland sea, filling the gap left behind when the Earth’s crust tore apart due to tectonic plate activity. The result is a hard water, very deep, rocky lake full of colourful cichlids that live nowhere else on Earth.

Malawi cichlids differ from most of the above species because they are non-pair forming maternal mouthbrooders. This means that when they spawn, the female picks up the eggs and holds them and the resultant fry in her mouth before releasing them amongst the rocks. 

Malawi cichlids can also be very aggressive and territorial but this can be overcome by crowding them so that one individual can’t take over the whole tank. This also means that a Malawi cichlid tank can make for an impactful display, full with brightly coloured, very active fish. 

Popular Malawi cichlids include Labidochromis caeruleus, Melanochromis auratus, Metriaclima estherae and Aulonocara spp (Peacocks.) Most reach a maximum of 15cm total length.  

Lots of fish means lots of waste so the tank should be large (minimum 90cm in length,) and very well filtered. Use external power filter(s) along with an airstone for extra aeration and protect the heater from falling rockwork. In soft water areas an appropriate pH buffer or Cichlid mineral salt should be used.

Lighting should have blue tones to replicate that deepwater lake. Marine spectrum lighting is the ideal choice and even very bright light can be used to encourage algae growth on the rocks, which the herbivorous mbuna will graze.  

Decor 

Fill a tall, deep tank with large rocks to simulate the rocky lake. Artificial rocks can be used to achieve a very rocky look without having to worry about weight. Use just one type of rock for continuity and stack so as to make the maximum number of caves and hideaways. Females, fry and subdominant males will use them to hide in. Limestone rocks can be used to help buffer the pH and keep the water hard and alkaline. 

For substrate use fine sand like Swell Aquarium Silver sand or marine sand like Caribsea. Marine substrates will give a marine look to the tank as well as buffering the water. Leave out live plants as they aren’t part of the rocky habitat in nature and your herbivorous cichlids will eat them.       

Lake Tanganyika cichlids

At a glance, Lake Tanganyika is very like Lake Malawi – deep, rocky and with very hard water. Tanganyika is again populated with endemic cichlids, but some are mouthbrooders (like Tropheus and Frontosa,) while others are pair forming substrate spawners, like Neolamprologus pulcher.

Tanganyikan cichlids take cave spawning to a new level with the diminutive shell dwelling cichlids, as well as many other shapes, sizes and feeding types. Tropheus should be kept like Malawi mbuna and crowded, but other Tanganyikan cichlids should be given space to make a territory and pair off. Fairy cichlids are some of the easiest of all the cichlids to breed, and successive generations of fry will help the parents to raise the young in an extended family group.

Popular species include Frontosa, Tropheus, Neolamprologus leleupi, Julidochromis, Neolamprologus pulcher (brichardi,) and Neolamprologus ocellatus. Most can be kept in aquaria of 90cm in length or larger with the exception of Frontosa, which will need a minimum five-foot tank because of their large adult size. 

Filtration and aeration should be very good as Lake Tanganyika water is very pure. The herbivorous Tropheus should also be fed specialist foods to avoid digestion problems. Use blue marine lighting to simulate the deep blue waters of Lake Tanganyika.   

Decor

Decor should be as for a rocky lake Malawi tank unless stocking sand-dwelling species which will need fewer rocks and more open areas of sand. 

Setting up a general cichlid tank

Many cichlid tanks are a mixture of cichlids from all over the world, so here are some general tips on accommodating a cichlid menagerie. Most cichlids are territorial, and most cichlids dig, so provide a deep layer substrate with grains small enough to fit inside the cichlid’s mouths.

Put rocks and wood in first, then gravel, so that when they dig they won’t undermine any rockwork. Try to provide at least one cave per cichlid as this ensures space for subdominant males or harassed females space to getaway.

Provide lots of hiding places in different areas, of different sizes and from different materials, so that each cichlid can choose its own place to take cover or to breed in. Most cichlids are not live plant-friendly so use artificial plants instead.

Cichlids are messy, especially large cichlids, so always use powerful filtration, do regular water changes, and use the largest aquarium you can accommodate. Length and width are more important to territorial cichlids than tank height. 

The fewer species and individuals you have in a mixed cichlid tank the better. If you require tank mates opt for tough Synodontis catfish or armoured sucker mouthed plecos. Dither fish are a better choice for mixed cichlid tanks than adding more cichlids, so opt for robust Silver dollars or Spanner barbs, which are less likely to cause aggression.         

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Jeremy Gay is an author and freelance aquatic specialist. A former editor of Practical Fishkeeping magazine, he offers a wealth of experience on all things aquarium and pond.


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