Whether you are new to African cichlids or have many years of experience, this article contains what may potentially be the most important information you will ever read about these amazing animals. Having said that, let's get started.
Cichlids can be categorized into four groups, each with unique dietary needs:
These fish prey on other fish, especially the fry of other species.
These fish are grazers and subsist by scraping algae off of rocks.
These fish have a variety in their diet, eating both plant matter, inverebrates, and small fish.
These fish eat small invertebrates such as artemia and plankton.
It is important that you understand what group your fish belongs to, and then to feed them accordingly. For example, the Tropheus species of Lake Tanganyika are herbivorous. If you feed them lots of frozen or live foods, or even flake food high in fish meal, they may not take well to it and retaliate by contracting "Bloat," the consequence usually being death.
Having said that, I should add that herbivorous fish do need some "meat" in their diet, and carnivorous fish need some vegetable matter in theirs. These should be seen as supplements however, and not as the main staple of their diet.
Many Cichlid foods are good and appropriate for all cichlids, be they carnivorous or herbivorous. What you want to watch out for are foods high in fat. You especially want to avoid anything that has beef heart or products from other warm-blooded animals.
Let me try and explain why.
Fish are cold-blooded animals, meaning that their body temperature rises and falls with their surrounding environment. They use fat for both an energy reserve as well as an energy resource. Just like humans, they have fat stores throughout their bodies. But these fats need to have a low melting point so that they can be utilized if the water around them is cold (like during the winter). Warm-blooded animals, on the other hand store fats that have a high melting point. If you feed your fishes fats from warm-blooded animals, they will not be able to mobilize these fats for energy use. Consequently, it will be stored in their livers, and over time it will accumulate leading to cirrhosis.
I use Spirulina flake for all of my fish. Spirulina is commonly sold in health food stores for human dietary supplementation because of its outstanding nutritional quality. It contains high levels of easily absorbed anti-oxidants, including chlorophyll, beta-carotene, and phycocyanin. In addition, it also has high levels of iron, vitamin B-12 and chromium (useful for metabolizing sugars). Furthermore, Spirulina is 65-70% protein. Consequently, you do not have to feed your fish lots of frozen foods or fish meal in an effort to get them their protein.
Variety is also important to keep in mind. It's not necessary to feed several different brands/preparations of food to your fishes if you have a good quality flake or pellet. I feed my herbivorous fish primarily Spirulina supplemented with frozen peas, romaine lettuce, spinach, and a color-optimizing fish meal-based flake/pellet food. For my piscivorous fish, I again feed a Spirulina-based flake (or pellet depending upon the fishes' size), supplemented with brine shimp flakes, shrimp pellets, and krill. Spirulina is their main staple (70%). I tend to avoid frozen foods and live foods - these are usually not necessary for african cichlids in my opinion.
If you have fish with yellow, orange, or red, you need to remember to feed them food with lots of pigment. Commercially prepared foods are good at providing these. These pigments when consumed are actually deposited in their skin; therefore, if their diet lacks these important pigments, they will show a faded coloration. (Note: faded coloring could also be due to stress: another dominant male or poor water conditions.)
If you have several fish in the same tank, it will be important for you to feed them several times a day. Don't continue to feed them the same amount that you have been, but cut it back. For example, I try to feed my fish 3-4 times a day, but only what they can consume in 20-30 seconds or less. By following this routine you will find that your cichlids will tend to be less aggressive. Remember, because cichlids are avaricious (e.g., borderline obnoxious) eaters, they can consume a great deal of food in 30 seconds.
The primary cause for aggression among cichlids is food. In the wild, cichlids have been seen to dwell in relatively high density. As a result, they compete greatly with other cichlids of their own species to find food. This point was illustrated to me when I noticed that my male Aul. stuartgranti and male Lab. trewavasae shared the same territory. The very aggressive and territorial trewavasae didn't mind the Aulonocara hanging out in his territory, but would obnoxiously chase the two trewavasae females and other similar looking Pseudotropheus spp. all over the tank.
As you most likely know, African cichlids are very territorial. This is because in nature, they establish territories to ensure their survival in these crowded conditions. With their own territory, they have a spot to graze and to prey on small invertebrates in the sand or mud. Fish which consume the same food are driven off for obvious reasons. Females are only allowed into a male's territory if she is willing to mate. And males of the same species are driven off because they are competiting for breeding with the females, in addition to competing for the same foods. By keeping your fish well-fed, you can control and manipulate their aggression. That is why I feed them 3-4 times a day. Or you could feed them less often, but a little more each time. (You can also curb aggression by heavily stocking your tank -- this way, not one fish takes all the damage, and cichlids tend to lose each other more easily in the crowd. If you are going to heavily stock your tank, make sure your filter can handle to load!)
Your cichlids should always appear HUNGRY. African cichlids will gorge themselves in captivity, which is carried over from their feeding behavior in the wild. Let me explain. In nature, most cichlids rely heavily on foods with lots of fiber, such as blue-green algae and organic detritus. While these foods constitute the majority of their diet, they supply very little food value per gram. Consequently, these cichlids must eat continuously in order to meet their metabolic needs. With nature having established this feeding pattern, cichlids will attempt to do the same in your aquarium, notwithstanding the superior nutritional value of the foods you provide them, not to mention the higher protein content too. While this doesn't directly describe predators, caution should also be attended to them because in the wild these cichlids only eat occassionally, preying on scarce food sources with high protein content. Consequently, nature has not placed a limit on their feeding behavior and so these fish know little satiety; they will overeat if allowed.
Let me reiterate, your cichlids should always appear HUNGRY. If they do not show excitement at being fed, they are either sick or overfed (or both!). Any time I walk by my tank, the fish will DART to the end at which I routinely feed them. They then begin bobbing up and down, poking their heads up through the surface of the water. It is better to underfeed than to overfeed. Overfeeding your fish is not only unhealthy but unwise. Cichlids that are overfed become susceptible to intestinal infestations which can escalate to "Malawi Bloat." "Bloat" can reduce a prized possession to death in a matter of days, and you won't even know what hit it.
There are a couple of other good reasons why you will want to avoid feeding your cichlids too much.
Herbivorous cichlids have long intestinal tracts, and therefore, it is quite common for them to have intestinal problems. This is especially true of Mbuna, whose digestional tracts are made for vegetable matter. They have long intestines (4x their body length) designed to extract the proteins and carbohydrates from the hard-to-digest algae. Cows and other ungulates use several stomachs to digest grass. Mbuna, on the other hand, do it with only one stomach and a very long intestine. For this reason, it is also a good idea to occassionally fast your fish -- give them a day off -- as this allows them to purge their intestines on a regular basis. Use caution when doing this because hungry Cichlids are aggressive cichlids.
The second reason why you will want to not overfeed is because the nitrate levels in your tank will rise too high. The levels of nitrate in your tank are almost a direct correlation to how much you feed them. If your tank's filtering system cannot handle the demands placed upon it by feeding your fish several times a day, you may want to cut back on the amount of food fed or the number of fish you keep.
I would like to return the topic of feeding your fish the proper kinds of food. The decomposition of improperly digested, or improperly excreted foods can irritate the intestinal wall, and stress the fish, giving an invasive parasite a foothold. This can often come about when a primarily herbivorous, algae-scraping Cichlid (like Tropheus and Pseudotropheus spp.) is fed high protein foods such as bloodworms, or pellet and flake foods containing large quantities of fish meal. In light of this information, and experience, it is important to avoid certain foods, and to go light on others. Cichlids don't exercise good judgment as to what is good for them and in what amounts; therefore, it is our duty to police their diet and the menu. Afterall, I would not be surprised if Tropheus greedily consumed a pint of gasoline if it was offered them. So, just because they like it doesn't mean it's good for them.
FOODS TO AVOID:
Tubifex. This is a thin, red worm that lives in mud of rivers, and is usually collected from polluted rivers. By feeding Tubifex to your fish, you are exposing them to the diseases these worms may be carrying.
Red Mosquito Larvae (a.k.a. blood worms). I have fed bloodworms to my fish without any known incidents; however, I know some authorities out there caution against them. Note, however, that I feed with these very light--only what they can consume in 30 seconds.
Beef Heart. Fishes are unable to utilize fat from warm-blooded animals for energy use. As a result, these fats build up in the liver, and over time will result in degeneration of their liver. For this reason, meat from any warm-blooded animal, and especially beef heart, is bad for your fishes.
Any food advertised for American cichlids. These foods are very dangerous for African cichlids because the two classes of fish have such different dietary needs.
FOODS TO GO LIGHT ON:
Pelleted food. Some pellets tend to swell a little after they have been put in water; therefore, you will want to soak them briefly before feeding them to your fish. You don't want them to swell inside your fish's abdomen because they could seriously distend, irritate, or constipate their digestive tract.
Flake food. You should not feed your cichlids more than they can consume in 2 minutes, not 5! I like to feed my cichlids several times a day, so that they aren't gorging themselves on large amounts of food at any one time. So, I only feed them what they can consume in 30 seconds. This is more natural, because in the wild, cichlids are nibbling on algae, plankton, or artemia (a.k.a. brine shrimp) throughout the day. This also helps to prevent the digestive problems already mentioned.
Frozen food. Any food that is high in animal protein, such as krill, brine shrimp, daphnia, plankton, bloodworms, and micro-worms should be used sparingly. And for herbivorous fish, they should not be used at all. I've had poor luck using these and since discontinuing their conservative use, have practically abolished "Bloat" from all my aquariums in the past several years. I don't believe they are necessary to produce great color and healthy fish; however, I did notice more frequent spawns when I did use them.
If you decide to feed frozen foods, use them only as supplements to your cichlids' main diet. Flake and pellet foods are ideal because they are quickly digested, and do not clog their intestines. Spirulina is also very nutritious and high in protein. When feeding frozen foods, it's important to only feed it to your fishes once it has completely defrosted and been broken up. An aggressive Cichlid can and will snatch the whole cube up and wake up the next morning with a bad case of "Bloat".
To feed frozen foods, you can defrost a chunk in a cup of tank water. You can use your finger or a toothpick to break it up. Feed frozen foods only once every 1-2 weeks.
The safest foods for herbivores are those which are predominantly vegetable-based, such as peas, zucchini, carrots, spinach, and romaine lettuce. These are needed to help them retain the full intensity of their coloration because of the beta-carotene, canthaxanthin, and other vitamins they contain. They also help to reduce the incidence of intestinal blockages because of their high fiber content. If you freeze these vegetables and then thaw them, they will soften up and can be consumed quite readily. I have also found that boiling them softens them and allows them to sink to the bottom of the tank, although this practice does cause the vegetables to lose some of their nutritional value.
African cichlids are beautiful and interesting creatures. If we treat them right, they will live long, happy lives. It's important to understand a cichlid's dietary requirements if we are to take proper care of them. Furthermore, we have the responsibility to feed them the appropriate foods in healthy proportions and intervals. Cichlids are avaricious eaters and can consume a large amount of food in a short period of time; therefore, limiting the amount of food they eat to 30 seconds (or less) is strongly recommended.