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Learning the Hard Way
by Jeffrey de Ruyter

With this article, I want to share my experiences on keeping cichlids with you.

Although my knowledge of keeping cichlids is also based on reading books, surfing the Internet for relevant articles and talking to the experts at a Dutch cichlid store, I've learned the most from personal experience; learning it the hard way!

In the summer of 2002, my brother in law picked up his old hobby again: African Cichlids. Since we are not just relatives but also friends I helped him buy, transport and aquascape his tank. By doing so, I started to get excited about the African Cichlids too. Before talking to my brother in law, I never knew that these fish had such evolved and interesting behaviour!

When you go for it, GO for it!

My brother in law lives in an apartment building where he has maximum room for a tank with a capacity of 88 Gallons (400 liters). I just loved the look of that tank, and started dreaming of one just like it. Unfortunately, our living room is not big enough for a tank that size because of all our other furniture, so I started keeping some cichlids in a small tank of 13 Gallons (60 liters) that was already inhabited by 3 small water turtles. How foolish

After a short while, I encountered many problems concerning the cichlids (just keep on reading this article) and I realised that at that specific moment, the solution to my problems would be a bigger tank. Fortunately, I finally found the answer to the question of where to put a bigger tank: upstairs in our study/guest-room. There still wasn't room for a really big tank, but at least I had room for a tank of 50 Gallons (200 liters) and so I bought one.

What I am trying to say is this: when you make up your mind to start keeping cichlids, start with a reasonably sized tank! Don't make the same mistake I made, thinking that for starters a smaller tank will do just fine. In my case, I unnecessarily spent a lot of money on the small tank and encountered many problems with the fish. Besides that, keeping cichlids has proven to be addictive. This means that once you start with a small tank, all you can ever think about is getting a bigger one!

Furthermore, it's wise not to save money on equipment and materials: in the end you will realise that you did indeed really needed it from the start, and it will save you a lot of unnecessary frustration and problems. In my opinion, the most important aspect of a healthy tank would be the water quality. The water quality should be adjusted to the fish's specific needs. The values like gH, pH and kH don't have to be ideal, as long as they're not too much off scale. What's most important is that these values stay stable and don't fluctuate too much.

The NO2 and NO3 values are far more important since they indicate how much harmful pollutant is in your tank. If kept within safe range, there's nothing to worry about. Last but not least there should be enough oxygen in the water.

Since there are already numerous articles on the Internet on how to influence the abovementioned values, I won't bother to discus them myself in this article. However, I do want to point out that "filter circulation capacity" is far more important than "pump output capacity". A basic guideline would be that to be on the safe side, your filter circulation capacity per hour should at least be three times the capacity of your tank.

To be or not to be a cichlid lover, that's the question

When aquascaping a tank, bear in mind that you're dealing with living creatures with their own specific needs. Find out what the natural habitat of your fish looks like, and try to recreate it in your tank. That is, if you're interested in getting the most natural behaviour out of your fish, and making your fish feel as comfortable as possible.

This is not to say that you should recreate the entire lake Malawi or Tanganyika in your living room to the smallest detail, just to also think of the fishes needs and likings when aquascaping a tank.

Don't judge a book by it's cover

When I first went out to buy cichlids for my small tank, I just looked for fish that attracted me with their shape and colour, nothing more I bought a male and female Pseudotropheus elongatus OB and one female Pseudotropheus lombardoi. I soon found out that the male elongatus was driving the female elongatus crazy by chasing her all the time, and the lombardoi was pretty aggressive towards the female elongatus too. By then I had read and heard that heavily stocking my tank could maybe cause my male elongatus to be less aggressive. Thus, I exchanged the lombardoi for a female Pseudotropheus demasoni, and after a while I also bought a male and female Pseudotropheus elongatus Mpanga, a male Pseudotropheus elongatus Chewere, a male Pseudotropheus demasoni and a male and female Labidochromus caeruleus Still, the male elongatus was ruler of the tank. He claimed the entire tank and would not tolerate any other fish in sight.

By now I had really overstocked my small tank and finally bought the 50 Gallon tank, hoping that the bigger tank would lead to less aggression It didn't help: the male elongatus had attacked the chewere so fiercely that the chewere had lost an eye and had to be salvaged from the tank to prevent death. Furthermore, the male and female demasoni had to endure so much stress from the male elongatus that they weakened and both got sick with dropsy and flagellate infections. Despite the use of medicine both fish died. As a last resort, I finally caught all the elongatus and sold them.

The lesson that I've learned from this is that you should do proper research on which cichlids you can and cannot keep together in the same tank, and be informed on the specific characteristics of the cichlids that you want to buy.

Feed, but don't overfeed

After the "elongatus incident", I bought a group of 5 Lamprologus ocellatus Gold, a male and female Altolamprologus calvus Black and a group of ten Tropheus sp. Black Bulu Point (a.k.a. Cherry Spot). I had kept the male and female Labidochromus caeruleus, since they had never given me any trouble.

I feed the fish on OSI Spirulina wafers and Tetra Cichlid wafers. It's always exciting to see all the cichlids in a feeding frenzy so I fed them a lot! Luckily, it didn't take long for me to realise that the caeruleus never (!) stop eating as long as there's food at hand. Besides that, I found out that although variation in food is good for the cichlids, too much variation can be disastrous for some fish (Tropheus) because of their sensitive digestive system. As a result, some of my Tropheus got sick with with flagellate infections. Fortunately, this time the medicine did work and the fish got healthy again.

I changed the feeding pattern to daily, once or twice, small amounts of OSI Spirulina wafers and weekly a small amount of Tetra Cichlid wafers. For my fish, this seems to work just fine.

Trial and Error

I remember one time when my brother in law and I went to a local fish store to take a look around. We saw a fish tank with a pair of Neolamprologus leleupi and asked the salesperson if that couple had ever spawned. The salesperson replied: "Sure, I've seen the female a couple of times with her mouth full of fry!" Leleupi are egg layers, not mouthbrooders. Make sure you buy your cichlids from people who know what they're talking about. Even better, make sure YOU know what you're talking about.

What I've learned in time is that wherever you go for advice, almost everyone has something different to say. The fact is that keeping cichlids is not an exact science. Sure, there are basic guidelines to follow, but what works for your fish tank and cichlids, may not work for someone else's.

Although sometimes costly, the best way to find the right solution for your specific problems is through trial and error. Whenever you want some advice, get it from different sources and make up your own mind!

Live and let die

Some people will tell you that when you have a sick cichlid, you have to try and catch it and place it in another tank for treatment with medication. Apart from the usual problems that occur with some cichlid species (for example Tropheus) upon replacing them in the tank, keep in mind that treating the sick fish in the same tank as the other fish will also treat fish that, although they don't appear sick, are also sick. Sometimes it's just a matter of time until they show the signs of sickness. Besides that, the act of catching the sick fish will cause a lot of stress (have you ever tried catching a fish in a fish tank filled with rocks and plants?!) to the other (healthy) fishes, thereby making them more vulnerable for diseases. In my opinion, it's best to wait with catching the sick fish until it's easy to catch the fish in the open swimming area of the fish tank.

When you expect that one of your cichlids has died, for the same reason of preventing stress for the other fish, don't bother to search for it between the rocks and plants unless it was a pretty big cichlid. A small dead cichlid won't be harmful for the water quality in your tank, and it will be eaten by the other fish.

Observe, but don't observe too much

Regularly observing your cichlids is always advisable. Preferably when feeding to see if all the cichlids are eating, because not eating is one of the first signs that something might be wrong.

However, during the first weeks of keeping cichlids, whenever I was at home, I observed them continuously. After all the problems that I had encountered with the cichlids in the past, I got obsessed with every minute thing that might indicate that something was wrong again. I had to learn that even cichlids can have different mood-swings and when one of the cichlids doesn't eat, it doesn't necessarily mean that something's wrong!

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and that it will help you prevent making the same mistakes I made. But hey, who am I to give you advise?! Experience things for yourself and remember to enjoy the fun of keeping cichlids!!!
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