African cichlid species make up an astonishing group of animals with great diversity in terms of colors, preferred habitats, prey and behavior. While one can encounter cichlids in small lakes and rivers, most of the species inhabit three great African lakes: Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. Consequently, African cichlids are classified in three big groups according to the lake they inhabit.
Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi were formed along the separation of two tectonic plates when two valleys were filled with water some million years ago. These ecosystems, known as rift lakes, host a stunning variety of cichlid species: Lake Malawi alone hosts around 800 species most of which are endemic to the lake, meaning that they cannot be encountered in any other place in the world, while Tanganyika hosts around 250 species.
The three African lakes, despite having discrete characteristics display similar environmental conditions concerning water quality. All three of them have an alkaline pH and a high load in salts and minerals, as most rivers that reach them are highly mineralized. Providing hard water (i.e. with a high concentration in salts) and maintaining a high pH (8-8.5) is important in order to maintain African cichlids in the aquarium. Lower pH will increase the susceptibility of the fish to disease, and might cause coloration loss. Maintaining an alkaline pH can be achieved by purchasing special chemical solutions and keeping shells, coral pieces or coral sand in the aquarium. The temperature of the tank should also be stable, maintained at 75-80 °F (24-27 °C). It is also important to regulate the levels of ammonia produced by the fish, as it can be toxic in environments with such high pH levels. This can be done either by regular changing the water or by following more advanced techniques such as the fishless cycling.
Although there are several African species with a variety of preferences in terms of habitat, many of them are rock dwellers. As a result, adding rock and boulders that will provide several hiding spots will enhance fish health and well-being. Providing hide-outs can also be a way to regulate fish aggression. Many of the African cichlids are large, school forming fish, but can be extremely aggressive to other species. It is thus important to choose the appropriate tank size, taking into consideration not only the number but also the size of the fish, as bigger species will generally need more space.
African cichlids also have a varied diet, including both predators and herbivores (plant eaters). For school forming species it is important to provide enough amount of food several times per day, as there is a high level of competition for food among individuals. However, overfeeding the fish will have adverse effects for their health, such as the syndrome of “Malawi bloat”, in which fish present unexpectedly big bellies. Consequently, the best strategy is to split the usual amount of food in several smaller portions that will be given throughout the day.
Overall, African cichlids are a spectacular choice for aquarium lovers, as they are easy to keep and provide a wide range of colors and behaviors that compensate more than enough for the effort required by their maintenance.
Axelrod H.R. 1993. The Most Complete Colored Lexicon of Cichlids