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Setting Up A Lake Malawi Cichlid Tank
by Rafal Izdebski (aka MalawiMayhem)

So you have finally decided to keep Lake Malawi cichlids but have yet to set up a tank that will house these beautiful fish. Well, you have come to the right place. This short article is meant to discuss the main elements of a Lake Malawi cichlid tank and to overview the requirements that these fascinating fish need to stay healthy, display good color and even breed in the home aquarium!

Let’s start with the water, the vital substance your fish will be living in for their entire existence. Malawi cichlids come from a rift lake in East Africa (Lake Malawi) that is very much alkaline (pH 7.5 to around 8.8) yet has relatively soft to medium hard water at best. (4-6 dGH and 6-8 dKH). Therefore, an attempt should be made to replicate these conditions in the home aquarium.

There are several ways attaining and maintaining a high pH can be accomplished. The easiest, of course, is to have naturally high pH water coming from the tap. Communities with high pH water benefit as higher pH water tends to prevent the corrosion of copper pipes. For the Malawi Cichlid aquarium, this water provides ideal conditions that can be kept stable even during water changes, when most pH changes typically occur. Another method to attain and maintain a high pH in the home aquarium is to use a material that will naturally buffer the pH high. The most common material to use is crushed coral sand/gravel that is either placed in the substrate or in a stocking/container to be placed in the filter(s). The coral leeches minerals that raise the pH and buffer it so it maintains a stable/high pH level. Other materials like crushed shell (like Oyster shell) can also be used.

Another option is to use rocks, like limestone, that also help raise and buffer the pH high. The advantage of this option is that the rocks both provide the decoration, shelter, territorial markers, spawning sites and maintain ideal water conditions by raising and buffering the water to the proper pH. If you find your tap water is not naturally high in pH, and you decide to use the other methods discussed to raise and buffer the pH of the water, you may find it advantageous to raise the pH of the new water added during water changes to the tank by using a product like Proper pH 8.2 or similar products (like sodium bicarbonate) that will raise the pH so that the newly added water will not cause a fluctuation in the tank’s pH. This is obviously not totally necessary if the water changes are kept small at around 25% or less as the change to the tank’s pH will be minimal, but larger changes may benefit from pre-conditioning of the water.

In the wild, Malawi Cichlids live in water temperatures of around 24-26°C or 76-79°F. An attempt should be made to keep the aquarium’s water temperature around these levels. Lake Malawi cichlids do not stand high temperatures very well; an effort should be made to locate the aquarium away from any sunny windows/space heaters, which could cause the water to overheat. Generally speaking, the higher the temperature of the water, the higher will be the metabolism of the fish, hence more food should be provided to maintain their activity level and ensure proper health. Even if you live in warm climates, it is recommended you use an aquarium heater in your home aquarium as this helps prevent any fluctuations in water temperature which can lead to stress in the fish.

Filtration of the water is as with any fish, there should be enough filters to provide both ample biological and mechanical filtration but also to create surface agitation to maintain gas exchange (O2 in and CO2 out). Malawi cichlids can be messy fish and overcrowding is sometimes necessary so over-filtering a tank is usually a good idea. The variety of filters available is great, however the most popular tend to be HOBs (hang on backs) and canister filters. UGFs (Under Gravel Filters) should be avoided as most Malawi Cichlids are diggers and will most likely expose the UGF plate therefore compromising its filtration efficiency. For much larger tanks a sump may be an attractive option however that is for the owner to decide.

Now, a brief mention about lighting for the Malawi cichlid aquarium. The lights should be fluorescent for three main reasons. Firstly, fluorescent lights provide the correct spectrum of light for healthy growth of the fish. Secondly, they do not generate as much heat as incandescent bulbs that could potentially heat the water to dangerous levels. Thirdly, they bring out the natural color of your fish more. However, the fluorescent lighting should not be too bright as very bright lighting can wash out the colors of your fish in addition to irritating them. I find the whiter the light the better. A 10,000K and up bulb will work best.

Now, let's discuss the tank’s decoration. Lake Malawi, being a rift lake, is naturally rocky both along its shoreline and below the water descending to the depths. This however, is not universal for the entire lake. There are many areas that have sandy beaches and sand below the waterline in addition to intermediate habitats that have a mix of both large rocks and sand. Typically, the lake has very little plants and those that do occur tend to be near river mouths and in swampy areas. In general though, the theme is rock and sand.

In the home aquarium, every attempt should be made to replicate these conditions as much as possible. However before deciding on decor, a little research on the species to be kept may be necessary. In general, there are two groups of cichlids in lake Malawi. The mbuna, or rock dwellers, spend most of their time in the rocky habitats and therefore should have a tank that is mostly filled with rock. On the other hand, the non-mbuna, often referred to as the Haps and Peacocks, typically live in the intermediate to sandy habitats and therefore require much less rock in the home aquarium. It is generally not a good idea to mix these two fish together not only because of the different tank set-up requirements, but also because of diet and aggression. Keeping both groups can prove challenging to the owner and often result in unnecessary deaths.

Once you have decided on the species you want to keep, set the tank up accordingly. If you decide to keep mbuna or mostly mbuna, prepare the tank glass bottom for the weight of the rock by first placing either Styrofoam or lighting grid (egg crate) directly on the glass before you place the rocks down. This will help distribute the weight of the rock more evenly and will prevent the toppling of rocks that have been dug out by the fish. Once the main rocks have been placed on the base, cover the base with sand or fine gravel. How high you place the rockwork is up to you, however care should be taken as to secure the rocks so that they do not fall or place too much stress on the back glass of the tank. The rockwork should be arranged in such a way as to provide passageways and caves to serve as shelter/spawning sites/territorial markers for the fish.

If you decide to keep non-mbuna or mostly non-mbuna, the tank will require much more open swimming space and not too much rockwork. The tank should have a sandy/fine gravel substrate with a few rocks spread along the bottom to serve as shelter/spawning sites/territorial markers. Some species, such as the Aulonocara and the Lethrinops greatly benefit from a sandy substrate as this brings out the many natural behaviors that are often seen in the wild. Using sand also makes cleaning easier as the debris stays at the substrate’s surface where it can be easily removed. Ultimately, it is up to the owner which substrate they like although the substrate should be darker rather than lighter to replicate the natural conditions in the lake and to bring out the color in the fish more.

There are also other materials you can use as decoration in Malawi cichlid tanks. One such material is clay pots or pipes. These can be very attractive in the aquarium and provide excellent shelter for the fish. Terra Cotta pots tend to be the best for aquarium use. Another material often used is PVC piping. Although not as attractive as clay pots, this piping can provide frameworks of passageways that the fish really love. The pipes can also be painted so they are not such an eyesore. Occasionally, real wood is used as decoration. The advantage of real wood is that it is lighter than rock and often comes in interesting shapes and sizes to create a really nice effect in the home aquarium. The disadvantage of wood in the Malawi cichlid aquarium is that real wood tends to lower pH, which is the opposite of what is desired. However, if there is enough buffering material in the aquarium, the wood’s effects will be minimal. Another material that can be used is brick. Many bricks come with various patterns and holes drilled in them that provide excellent passageways for fish while maintaining superior stability in the aquarium when they are properly stacked. There are also countless types of rocks that can be used like lace rock and slate that add structure to the tanks rockwork while adding a touch of variety.

Plants in the Malawi Cichlid aquarium can work but be aware that most Malawi cichlids are diggers and occasionally will taste plants, especially if those cichlids are in the mbuna group. Plants that usually do well in African tanks are Valisneria, Anubias and Java fern. The last two are especially good as they can be tied to a rock or a piece of wood and will grow directly on that, therefore eliminating the possibility of being uprooted by the fish. In addition, they are tough plants with a rather nasty taste to the fish.

As you can see, the possibilities for decorations in Malawi Cichlid tanks are great. But the overall theme should be rock and sand, just like in the Lake. The pH should be high and stable and good filtration coupled with stable water temperature should be maintained. If this is done, the fish will thrive, show amazing color and possibly even breed!

I hope this brief article has helped generate some ideas on setting up a Malawi Cichlid tank and wish you all the best in your endeavor!

Enjoy your fish! □


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