Designing an African Rift Lake Cichlid Aquarium

OB Guy

Designing an African Rift Lake Cichlid Aquarium:
African Rift Lake Cichlids are among the most colorful, active and hardy freshwater fish in the aquarium hobby. Their colors rival those of many saltwater fish, and their elaborate mating and brood care behavior are fascinating to watch. Most Rift Lake Cichlids originate in Lake Malawi and Tanganyika, with a few species native to Lake Victoria in East Central Africa. If you’re looking for brightly colored freshwater fish with loads of personality, African Rift Lake Cichlids might be just the fish for you!

Choose an aquarium of at least 75 gallons for a mixed community of Mbuna rock dwellers, Peacock cichlids and other medium sized species. Dwarf Julidochromis, Lamprologus and Neolamprologus from Lake Tanganyika can be kept in aquariums of 20 to 30 gallons. Larger species such as C. frontosa and C. moori will need an aquarium of at least 125 gallons as adults. Because most African cichlids are territorial, the aquarium should have a large bottom area relative to its volume.

Live plants are not part of an African cichlid display and the fish prefer more subdued light, making standard aquarium lighting more than adequate. Color enhancing bulbs can help accent your fishes’ natural colors but are not essential.

Standard aquarium sand or gravel can be used, but crushed coral, coral sand or crushed oyster shell will help maintain the proper pH and alkalinity to support good health and color in your African cichlids. A 1” to 2” bed is best, as many species love to dig!

The African cichlid aquarium should have plenty of rock work, caves and other hiding places to create needed territories. Limestone and dolomite rock will help maintain proper water chemistry, but virtually any rock or artificial decor is suitable. Rinse all decorations before placing them in your aquarium.
Avoid using driftwood, as it may cause an undesirable lowering of pH and alkalinity. When decorating your aquarium, position rocks directly on the aquarium bottom and add substrate around them to prevent stacked rocks from tumbling and damaging the tank if your cichlids burrow under lower ones. Add enough rock work and other decor for the first few fish but leave room to add more as you add new fish. Live plants other than Anubias, Java Fern and perhaps Hornwort are not practical, as most African cichlids will dig them up and Mbuna, being herbivores, will often eat them. If you wish to have plants in your African cichlid aquarium, choose artificial.

Most African cichlids do best at temperatures between 74°and 80°F. Large African cichlids can be rough on heaters, so it’s best to use a ceramic or stainless steel models as opposed to glass to avoid breakage and a potential electrical hazard. pH should be maintained between 7.8 and 8.4 for Lake Malawi fish and 8.0 and 9.0 for Lake Tanganyika fish. KH should be between 10°and 20° dKH. Always use a Water Conditioner like Seachem Prime or similar water treatment when filling your aquarium or performing water changes.

A robust filter with strong mechanical filtration capability is a must with Rift Lake cichlids as many species love to dig, stirring up debris. Hang on back (HOB) filters are suitable for aquariums up to 75 gallons, but canister filters are preferred for larger tanks. Choose a filter rated at least one size larger than your aquarium and use multiple filters on tanks larger than 90 gallons. Generally, a combined flow rate of at least 10 times the aquarium volume is recommended.

Mbuna cichlids are mostly herbivores, while Peacocks, Haplochromines and many Tanganyikan cichlids are carnivorous. Flake, granule and pellet foods make an excellent diet for virtually all African Rift Lake cichlids. Frozen and freeze-dried foods are also recommended, but avoid feeding tubifex and bloodworms, as many Rift Lake cichlids cannot digest the high fat content in these foods. Do not feed live feeder fish to your African cichlids, as their nutritional value is limited, and they can carry diseases. Research the dietary needs of your fish and choose foods accordingly. For Mbuna, allow algae to grow on rocks and other décor as this provides them with a constant supply of natural food.

Once the temperature is set and a water conditioner has been added, allow your aquarium to run for 48 to 72 hours before adding fish. Here are some helpful tips to make sure stocking your aquarium goes smoothly:
  • Start out with juvenile fish. They will be less aggressive and more accepting of one another as they grow to adulthood.
  • When adding new fish, add new rocks and/or rearrange existing decorations to create new hiding places that have not been claimed by existing fish.
  • Ask your local aquarium expert about the aggression level of each species before you buy them. Add less aggressive species to the aquarium first and progressively aggressive species as time goes on.
  • New additions should be at least the same size as the largest or most aggressive fish already in the aquarium.
  • When mixing closely related or similar looking species, try to add them to the aquarium at the same time to avoid dominance from established fish. Never add a smaller member of a species already living in the aquarium.
  • Adult African cichlids are less inclined to quarrel when you crowd them just a little, so don’t be afraid to stock a little heavily. Just make sure you have adequate filtration and don’t add too many fish at a time in a newly set up aquarium.
  • Only add one male of a species if females are present to avoid severe aggression.

Many species of African cichlids are mouth brooders, and some species can be quite prolific. After spawning the female carries her eggs and newly hatched fry in a special pouch in her mouth. Eventually baby fish can be seen darting among rocks and other decorations and a few will grow to adulthood. For intentional breeding, set up male/female pairs in an appropriately-sized aquarium.
African Rift Lake cichlids are among the most rewarding freshwater fish to keep, and in many ways, they involve the least amount of work to maintain!