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Why African Cichlids?
by Marc Elieson

Whether you have been keeping freshwater fish for years, maintaining a saltwater reef tank and are tired of the costs, or new to the hobby, African cichlids are THE fish for you. Let's see if I can’t convince you.

Haplochromis sp. 44 ''Red Tail''First and foremost, African cichlids are prized and adored for their beautiful coloration. You cannot find freshwater fish that are more colorful than these fish from East Africa. And, you cannot find a saltwater fish with color equal to African cichlids for even half the price. Look at this picture of a Lake Victoria Hap, for example. Can you find a color of the rainbow that he doesn’t display? Green is probably the only color. And this is just one of over a thousand colorful species.

On the whole, African cichlids are relatively intelligent fish. But perhaps even more important, they are very hardy fish, which makes them easy to maintain. Their care is not so easy, however, that it would bore the advanced, but because they’re hardy they don’t present an impossible challenge for the beginner. The fact that they are freshwater fish simplifies things a whole lot, but what makes their maintenance even easier is that they need hard, alkaline water. It’s actually cheaper and easier to make neutral water alkaline, than vice versa. If you have soft or neutral tap water, there are home remedies that work quite well. Plus, you can use all different kinds of rocks and coral to help buffer your water so that it stays alkaline. Furthermore, African cichlids have a wide range of tolerable pH levels, whereas most freshwater fish will go belly up if it moves more than 0.6, which is part of the reason why they are not as hardy as African cichlids.

Yet another reason for African cichlids’ popularity is due to their unique and remarkable behavior. In general, they are very social, displaying lots of energetic movement anytime someone walks past the tank. They will race in a swarm along the glass, always appearing starved. Suffice it to say that they are talented at laying on the guilt if you are not constantly feeding them. And they don’t waste any time when it comes to eating. They readily consume large amounts of whatever you’ll feed them in just a matter of seconds, even if it’s not good for them. Many “Haps” have developed unique hunting techniques: from N. livingstonii that buries itself in the sand, pretending to be dead in order to attract would-be prey, to D. comprecessips that uses its pancake-thin body to elude detection by tracking its prey head-on, and Copadichromis species that have developed a protrusible mouth which shoots forward to form a tube. This causes negative pressure in the mouth, which pulls plankton in, like a vacuum.

African cichlids at the Dallas AquariumAfrican cichlids are also very aggressive fish. For the beginner this may be daunting, but if enough about their behavior and needs is understood, this attribute can be turned to the advantage of the aquarist. One of the advantages this aggression has is that African cichlids can be “crowded.” When kept in a crowded environment, aggressive and dominant fish tend to lose their victims in the crowd. Crowding is actually a condition that is found in the wild, as they are often found in densities as high as 10-18 fish per square meter. Think of this “controlled crowding” as a gift to the cichlid enthusiast. Just imagine, a tank packed with bright, colorful, and active fish. And you can certainly house three times the number per gallon than you could if you had a saltwater tank!

The cichlids of East Africa are also renowned in science and among hobbyists for their proliferation. With very few exceptions, African cichlids (and especially those from Lake Malawi) have proven themselves to be among the easiest aquarium fish to breed. Not only is the rate at which these fish proliferate that fascinates hobbyists, but also their method of courting and subsequent care for the eggs.

Most African cichlids are what’s called “maternal mouthbrooders.” Once a male has fertilized the eggs, the female will pick them up, and incubate them in her mouth for a period of 3 weeks to 31 days, depending upon the species. While “holding” the eggs, the mother will “tumble” them in her buccal cavity. During this period, she doesn’t eat. Once the yolk sack has disappeared and the fry are free-swimming, she will release them. Many researchers believe that mouth brooding is an advance in the evolution of reproductive methods, since it provides extended protection to the offspring during a delicate point of their development. Furthermore, the offspring of mouthbrooders tend to be larger than substrate fry. And even after the fry have been released, the mother will frequently take them back up into her buccal cavity when they are threatened. African cichlids are not the only species that practice mouthbrooding. Arowanas, some catfish, Anabantoids, and some saltwater fish are also maternal and/or paternal mouthbrooders (as is the case with arowanas).

Another reason why people are excited about African cichlids is because of their larger size. Most of the other popular freshwater fish in the aquarium hobby (e.g., tetras, mollies, and killifish) don’t get larger than 2 or 3 inches. Brooding Maylandia estherae ''Red Zebra''African cichlids, on the other hand, usually reach sizes of 4 to 6 inches, with some of the “Haps” even reaching sizes up to 9 inches. So, while African cichlids do cost a little more than tetras, you certainly get more fish (literally) than you do if you buy a tetra. Besides, African cichlids have an average life span of 4-10 years, while some species may live over 15 years! What has caught many enthusiasts’ eyes in the recent past is the discovery of several dwarf-sized species. These can be maintained in smaller tanks, which has made keeping cichlids a possibility for those without an aquarium 50-gallons or larger.

You will never get bored of African cichlids. Among the three large lakes in Africa (Victoria, Malawi, and Tanganyika), there are more than 1,200 different and unique species that have been identified. And there are hundreds more that are endemic to the rivers surrounding these three lakes. Almost a third of these are readily available to the average aquarist. So, if you ever think you’re tired of the species you’ve got, there are always hundreds more to check out. No matter how long you’ve been in the hobby, or how serious you are, there is always one you haven’t tried. Not to mention that new species are constantly being collected, identified, and classified.

Because of their diversity and evolutionary age, scientists are very interested in studying African cichlids. Their efforts in large part, and the efforts of hobbyists from all over the world, have contributed greatly to the information that is available to hobbyists everywhere. Plus, the quantity and quality of information is increasing everyday. And so keeping African cichlids has the potential to be a very rewarding experience because hobbyists and enthusiasts are able to access a large amount of information on these fish, and many of the particular species.

Are you convinced yet that African cichlids are THE fish for you? I hope so. Now, if anyone ever asks why you chose to keep African cichlids, you can respond: “Well, why not?” □

Article reproduced from African Cichlids - Victorian & Malawi


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