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I have a 55 gal aquarium, I recently found out that cichilds need a specific substrate, not just typical aquarium gravel. I have been reading different ideas on types of substrate from sand to crushed coral, light, dark, there are so many suggestions on the web I don't know what to do. Also I really can't figure out what kind of cichilds I have, with so many different varieties. I live in a town that does not have a specific fish store, just Walmart, believe it or not all my cichilds have come from there healthy.
 

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Chances are that you have africans, as most of the cichlids sold at Wal-Mart are malawi mbuna.

Do your fish look like any of the below fish?
Labidochromis Caeruleus(yellow Lab)
Melanochromis Auratus)
Metriaclima Callainos (Cobalt Zebra)
Metriaclima Estherae (Red Zebra)
Jewel Cichlid(don't know it's linaean name)
Pseudotropheus Crabro (sometimes called bumblebee/hornet cichlid)

Gravel is an acceptable substrate for them, but you'll see more of their natural behavior with a sand substrate. Some people use crushed coral to raise pH and kh, but I personally think it looks terrible and over time algae will grow all over it. It can be added to your filter in an old nylon if you really want it. It will also be more effective as it will get water flowing through it, not just over it.

Dark vs. Light usually comes down to the aquarist. Some people like the white sand look, and white play sand is cheap, so that's good for them. Some people like a more natural(and biotopic) look and opt for a tanish play sand, also inexpensive and available at home depot. I've found that my fish photograph beautifully with a black substrate and also seem to have deeper darker colors(with lighter substrates the fish often "fade" to match the substrate, or just don't stand out as much against it), and the fish seem to be highlighted as the substrate just sort of "fades" away visually. Of course I paid dearly for my darker substrate at $28/50lbs instead of $6/50lbs. In my opinion, it was worth it, as I like the aesthetics, but there are many that think black substrates are very unnatural looking.

If you are unsure about your fish, try taking some photos of them(get the camera very close to the glass to reduce the flash reflection, and turn on your macro mode if you have it), then post them in the Unidentified section, or Malawi. Chances are, you ended up with volatile mix of fish, some of which will have to be returned for more suitable species(that won't kill each other). That's what happened to me!
 
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