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Starting up right with Cichlids
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Previously published in Ciklidbladet 1-2/1995 (Swedish version) Previously published in Gaceta del Ciclidófilo 4/1995 (Spanish version)
One type of article that many has been asking for is "Reports from the home". Some has also asked for articles from "old hands" in the hobby. More often then not it is the beginners that takes the time to write articles. I want to make a good example with this article, as a self nominated "old hand", and talk about some of the things that I have learn over the years. I hope that I can inspire other people to do the same.
One thing I have learned from my +10 years in the hobby is that keeping fish is not a science, it is a craft. Many people dig deep down in the scientific literature without being better aquarists, since keeping fish is not an exact science. Much of the knowledge you need you have to have in your fingertips, and the best way to get this knowledge is by you own experiences.
Naturally it is important that you, as a beginner, read everything you can get hold of. There is a lot of experiences gathered in aquarium books and magazines. If you read and let you be inspired by what you read, the learning curve is dramatically shortened. But you must be critical also and not believe everything you read, especially in old aquarium literature. You can't be to categorical either, there is certainly as many ways to succeed with cichlids as there are aquarists. You have to respect the things that other people do that differs from your own way, and always questioning your own methods to get further on the way. It is also important that you do as you say you do. As soon as you starts to be sloppy, don't do the water changes, don't use the best food and so on, the problems starts to pop up!
In my opinion there is only three thing you REALLY need to do to have success with your cichlids; keep a good water quality in the aquarium, give the fish good food and keep a watching eye on the fish. If you do these three things you can do a lot of other things wrong and still have healthy fish in the aquarium.
In the last years dripple filters and other high tech solutions and additives to the aquarium water has become more and more popular. All this is good and well. But there is an old and well known method that beats all this high tech stuff, and that is WATER CHANGES! In Sweden we are blessed with high quality tap water. It has no bacteria's, chlorine or other chemicals that is harmful for the fish. I f you have good tap water, water changes is absolutely the best guarantee for good water quality in the aquarium. The dissolved biproducts from the fish follows the water out of the aquarium when you change the water. These harmful chemicals can certainly be filtered down in an advanced filter system, but you can never get rid of everything. The biggest advantage with a good filter system is probably that you can prolong the intervals between your water changes. You must though always change water regularly if you have a normal amount of fish in the aquarium. I do a 25-50% water change once every week myself. I do it that often because I can spot the difference. Also the fish notice the change, they will often spawn right after a water change.
The temperature of the water you change with is not an important factor. Even if you change 25% of the aquarium volume and replace it with really cold water, the temperature in the aquarium will only drop a couple of degrees C. And this change is gradual, so the fish have time to adapt. Naturally you should have a temperature on the new water that is as close to the temperature you have in the aquarium. I just check with my hand if the temperature in the new water is as it should be.
Once I had a problem with fish getting air bubbles in the eyes when I changed water. It turned out that my tap water was surfeit with oxygen and the fish got decompression sickness, i.e. they got gas in their blood system. The solution of this problem was to use a shower handle to shower the water down in the aquarium and let the gas disappear in the air. This is also useful if you have (small amounts of) chlorine in the water. Since then I have never had any problems with air bubbles in the fishes eyes.
If you are lucky your tap water work's well with your fish. If this is the case, there is no need whatsoever to do some tricks with the water and put additive salts and so forth in the water. It is much more important that the water is STABLE that having the right pH, DH, GH or "whatever-you-can-think-of" value. Only if you are unlucky, or if you need to of some other reason, you should consider to ad something to your tap water.
The most important water measure, without doubt, it the pH value. You can raise it or lower it with simple methods; bicarbonate to make it higher or maybe peat to lower it. Even better is to choose cichlid species that can live in the water you have in the tap. I don't have to do anything with my water, it is stable around pH 7.7 and this is perfect for my Malawi cichlids.
When I do the water change I also clean the front pane from algae and clean the filters. A water change at my home and my 6 aquariums takes me about 2 hours. Most of the time goes to empty the tanks with a garden hose with the siphon-method. Not much work compared to other domestic animals.
I hardly ever buy my fish food in the aquarium shops. Unfortunately it is difficult to find good aquarium food there, the one exception is of course the Artemia -eggs. I don't use pellets, but I do use spirulina and Artemia flakes as a fast food from times to times. They are good enough and easy to use. Otherwise I only give my fish my home made "Shrimp mix" based on green peas and shrimps.
One favourite myth in the hobby is that the fish always should have a "varied diet". Sure, there is species that eats everything in nature and they certainly should have a varied diet, but if you are talking algae eating species, as the Mbuna from the Malawi lake, they only eat one thing; algae and a small amount of different small creature that lives in the algae layer, and if you talk about a predator they only eat fish, fish and fish. To give those species a "varied diet" can be harmful for their digestive systems. A well composed standard fish food is, in my opinion, the only thing you have to give to those kinds of cichlids.
To prevent the fish from being tired of the base food, it is good though to give them something else in small amounts from time to time. Give this extra food to the fish after they have eaten their belly full of the standard food, otherwise the sudden change in the food can be to violent.
I remember the time I started to do my own fish food. Already after two month's I could see a radical change in the fish, they thrived as they had never done before and they got better colours also. If you ever starts to do your own fish food and if you care about your fish, you will never stop. I encourage everyone who reads this to test this yourself, you will never regret it.
One of the most common faults that beginners do is to give the fish to much food. We are talking about cold blooded animals and they don't need as much food as we humans do. Remember also that a major part of the food only deteriorates the water quality. I don't feed my fish so much, when it comes to the fry I surely give them to little. My fish are never big, but on the other hand they have the right body shape (I just hate those Mbunas that looks like soccer balls!) and they are seldom sick. It is not unusual that my adult fishes goes without food for 2-3 days in a row. This is only healthy for the fish. The fry, on the other hand, shall be given food at least twice a day, otherwise they will never get the right size as an adult.
If the fishes get sick is due to sloppy maintenance. They don't get sick by themselves! The most common cause of diseases is lacking water quality or food or new fish in the tank. Especially good water quality is important for the fish.
My own fishes is very seldom sick. If they are, I have neglected them in some way. Sometimes fishes can be stressed when I clean the aquariums, or when a territorial male goes in a small aquarium and chases the females. Sometimes I have had diseases due to temporarily bat tap water.
When my Malawi cichlids gets sick they will usually have the so called "bloat". This is not a disease in its own right, it is a symptom or a later stage of the real cause of the sickness. The main cause for algae eating species is to nutritious and soft food. Dont ever give blood worms or even deep frozen Artemia to Mbunas! Usually you can cure it with some medicine that contains Metradinazol. In Europe we have Emtryl 40% (5 ml per 100 l aquarium water after a partial water change). This is a preparate you can buy from a veterinarian. I have always a can of this medicine in the refrigerator. The same active component can be found in a human medicine by the name Flagyl. Another useful medicine against the "bloat", with a different active component, is AquaFuran or BioFuran.
As soon as I notice that some fish don't eats and keep themselves in the background, it is time for a water change and a medication. I have save a lot of expensive fish this way.
Sometimes I got the "ick" from newly bought fishes. Therefore I always keeps the new fish in a separate tank for a couple of weeks. When it comes to Malawi- and Tanganyika fish is it important that the medicine don't contains copper; this is lethal for the fish!
If you buy wild cough fish you have to be careful not to get a wild cough disease or parasite also. When it comes to wild cough fish it is important and motivated to give them a medicine treatment before you put them together with your old fish. It is not that important when you deal with cultivated fish you know are healthy.
You should leave your fish alone as much as you can. You don't have to "work" with the fish all the time, change fish, change the interior decoration, put down new fish etc. A calmer state of affair means less sickness and deaths amongs the fish.
When you have to do a big cleaning of the aquarium or transport the fish, a salt addition to the water helps the fish to easily exchange oxygen and chemicals through the gills. This lessens the stress of the fish.
Always take care that the water values never changes fast; a fish can cope with astonishing differences in water quality, but they do need plenty of time to adjust to it.
When it comes to new fish they have to be slowly accustomed to the water in their new tank. I usually put the fish and the water in a bucket, then I ad another 25% water from the aquarium in the transport water. I keep filling another 25% in the bucket from the aquarium every 20-15 minutes for an hour. Then I net the fish up and put it in the aquarium. I don't want to put the transport water into the aquarium.
Some species is more delicate than others. One of the more stressing things you can do to the fish is to net them up and hold them in the hand for a long time. If you have sensitive fish you should not do this. If you do, be sure to wet the hand in the water before you touch the fish. Otherwise you take away the slime layer from the fish.
I started out with a 150 l aquarium. When this was to small I bought a 250 l aquarium. Next step was a 600 l aquarium, and now I have a 1200 l aquarium. My experience is that you need a aquarium that is twice as big as the old one, otherwise you will not be satisfied!
The difference between the 600 and the 1200 is huge. In the big aquarium the fish is calmer and they don't kill each other. If you want to keep bigger cichlids, then 1000 l or bigger is the best alternative. Naturally you can keep smaller species in smaller aquariums, but big fish in small aquariums never works.
Fry aquariums can be much smaller. In my apartment I have 6 fry aquariums, the biggest one is 350 l and de smallest ones 100 l. To be able to keep more mouth brooding females, I use plastic separators in the aquariums. I have drilled holes in the plastic sheets to admit the water to circulate. The water from the submerged motor pump is transported from one end of the aquarium to the other through a tube going over the plastic sheets. This way I have water circulation in the whole aquarium. I can keep 4-5 brooding females in the aquarium at the same time with this method.
The main purpose of the filter is not to break down the chemicals through biological processes, its main purpose is to keep the water clean from floating particles in the water; you get rid of the dissolved chemicals when you change the water. Another important task for the filter is to get the water moving. You will notice a big positive difference in the health of the fish if you have a good current in the aquarium. The best filter I have used is the Eheim filters. They hardly ever fails and are easy to maintain. They are expensive, but they are good. I use submerged filters in all my aquariums. In the big aquarium I also have a 18 l Eheim pond filter. In this filter I use coral gravel as filter media. This helps to make the pH stable at 7.7. The coral gravel dissolves, I have to refill every other year.
The bacteria culture in this big filter probably helps to stabilise all the water values also. All tubes to this outside filter is secured with double brackets, I don't want to have 1200 l water on the floor! As a security measure,
I have drilled a small hole in the pipe that sucks the water from the aquarium, about 1 cm below the surface of water in the aquarium. This way I will "only" have 1 cm water level from the aquarium on the floor if the worst should happen, because the siphon effect will stop when air comes into the tube.
I don't believe in under gravel filter. They are "time-bombs" that works a couple of years, until they are so dirty that is starts to affects the water quality in the aquarium. And then the fish will hurt. In my opinion it is better to transport the dirt out of the system, as you do when you have submerged filters. I clean the foam rubber in the filter under running water once every other week. If they are very dirty, I put them a couple of minutes in boiling water, then they are as new again (beware of the smell, though!).
There is a widespread myth that you shall not hurt the "biological culture" in the filter with hot water. I believe that this "culture" comes back by itself in a couple of days, even if you boil the filter foam. And it don't makes any difference whatsoever.
I have not had any aeration in my aquariums the last years. I don't like the air pumps because the are so noisy. They are not so effective as oxygenators either. Nowadays I have submerged pumps instead. It is important that the flow of the pump mix the surface water to get the best oxygen addition.
I have one water heater in each aquarium. I prefer heaters without thermostat that is underdimensioned for the aquarium. Otherwise you have the risk that the fish becomes boiled when the thermostat gets jammed. Ideal temperature is somewhere between 22-30 C. Outside this range the fish will be stressed (talking about a "normal" tropical aquarium fish naturally).
Lights It is nice to have a good light in the aquarium. If you have algae eating fishes you can never have to much light. It is also nice to have a dimmer "night" light in the evening. The fish likes this and it gives them a more natural change between "daylight" a and the pitch black night. It is specially important if you have fry in the aquarium, the parents then can make some steps to "put the fry in bed" if you have a dim night light before all of the major lights is turned off.
The interior decoration doesn't mean so much for the fish, but it is nicer to see a well decorated aquarium than a not-so-well decorated one. Important for the fish is that it is enough interior details so they can give vent to their natural behaviour. How the aquarium should be decorated is dependent on the fish you have in it. If you have sand dwelling cichlids, you should have an open sandy surface, if you have cichlids living in rocky areas in nature you shall have rocks.
The most important aesthetic part of the aquarium decoration is the background. If you have a wallpaper with flowers behind the aquarium, it doesn't matter how nice the other decoration in the aquarium is. I have made myself a nice looking background in my big aquarium using flat stones and gravel and more or less the same technique as they use when they make plastic boats. The background stands inside the aquarium against the back glass pane. The background is made in 4 parts that fits together, each one with a weigh of about 25 kg. I am pleased with the look of this and it only gets nicer with age. The fish seems to feel secure near the stones in the background and the fry finds shelter in the cracks between the four pieces.Sometimes they even spawn against this vertical substrate. Besides this background I don't have so much stones in the aquarium, because I need to be able to catch the females when they have fry in the mouth. Maybe the lack of territorial markings on the bottom is one reason why the fish don't fight so much in this aquarium.
You shall have gravel in the aquarium. In a completely naked aquarium the water values will change fast, because the bacteria's that breaks down the chemicals in the water does not have any surface to cling to, and thus will be few in number.
The gravel also gives the Cichlids a good "therapy", they can take a mouthful of gravel and sift through the gills or dig a pit. Without gravel they cant give vent to their natural behavior.
You shall not have a thick layer of gravel, 3-4 cm is good enough. The best gravel I have seen is coral sand, 2-3 mm size of the grain. In my smaller aquariums I have a finer gravel (1-2 mm), otherwise the fry can go astray and disappear among the grains.
I use an algae magnet of the biggest size, and I use this to clean up the front pane between the water changes. When I do a water change I use a window cleaning scrape with a 10 cm razor blade instead. Since this blade is so long it is easy to clean the 2.5 m long front pane in my big aquarium.
The bigger net, the better net. To my big aquarium I have bought the biggest net I can find, and this is useful when you have to catch quick Mbunas!
When you catch fish, the safest and least adrenaline-raising way is to put a rubber matting on the floor, drain half of the water from the aquarium and take away all the stones on the bottom of the aquarium and put them on the rubber matte. Only then you start chasing the fish with a net in each hand. If it is only one fish you need to catch, you can always try the "fast method" and try to surprise the fish when feeding before the fish realize what's going on. Sometime you succeed, sometimes you don't...
In Sweden there is a widely spread status-thinking when it comes to wild cough cichlids. If the fish is not wild cough, it is no good. This is simply not true. In my view the best fish is quality cultivated fish after good parents (wild cough or not).
I don't mean that wild cough fish is no good; on the contrary, they are usually very good! You know (more often than not) where they are cough and what variant you have. Particularly if you are looking for a breeding-stock or wants to freshen an old aquarium strain with fresh blood, then wild cough fish is the way to go. What I am saying is that not all wild cough fish is looking as we aquarists wants them to look like. If there is not an aquaristic selection at the site, then we will have quite a few not so good looking fish in each shipment. The advantage in cultivating is that you can select the best looking animals and let them breed. Often the fry from such a pair will become even better than their parents, at lest a few of the fry will certainly be more beautiful. Assuming, of course, that the fry is quality cultivated with the right conditions and food.
The best looking fish in my aquarium is not wild caught, it is a cultivated Ps. tropheops "Red Top" with an all read dorsal fin. This was a "super-fry" I found in one batch from a wild caught couple.
Unfortunately there is also a lot of badly cultivated cichlid fry on the market. You have fry after bad looking parents, fry that has not been given the right conditions when growing up, they can be small or big and round as soccer balls, and of course you also have crosses between different species. It is up to you to decide what quality the fish have when you buy it. Be prepared to pay more money for good looking fish, you want regret it.
Wild cough fish is usually more difficult to keep, at least in the beginning. Not so infrequently the fish has some wild cough disease or parasites. The cultivated ones, on the other hand, is already used to the water and the life in the aquarium and they are generally easier to keep.
When it comes to wild cough animals there is also a nature conservation aspect to consider, even if this maybe is more of an issue for mammals and higher animals. The catching of wild animals for the hobby market is controversial and in some cases harmful. The catching of endangered species and transports that makes the animal suffer unnecessarily have to be regulated. But you shall also use common sense and compare this catching with the environmental threats, the biggest menace for the wild animals.
In almost all cases regarding aquarium fish the threat from the catching is very small compared to the threats from environmental destruction and the human population growth.
Keeping of wild animals can even be an advantage to the wild animals, since there are people in the world that cares about the animals and tries to learn more about them. These interested hobby people knows what is happening and can inform other people and make a difference.
The catching industry also puts a price tag on the animals, and this might persuade local, governments not to destroy the habitats where the animals live, sine they in that case will loose money if the animals is wiped away.
Genetical defects due to a small genetical variation in the parents (inbreeding) can occur if you have aquarium strains that has been inbred 4-5 generations. This is something you have to consider if you want to quality breed your fish. Myself I am always watching for good looking animals when I am travelling. If I find a good looking fish, I buy it to add to my spawning group back home. Another way to do is to change fry with another cultivator, this way both populations will get new genes and we can break the inbreeding chain.
You cant be to soft hearted when you are breeding fish. If you want fry of the best quality, then you have to cull the ones that don't measure up to the standards. Supernumerary grown males shall be taken away as soon as possible, they only gives you trouble.
When I am killing a fish, I take it in my hand and throw it hard against the floor or the washbowl. This is a fast and effective and the fish don't have to suffer for a long time.
If a smaller fish is dead in my big aquarium due to harassment from the other fishes, I let the fish eat the dead one. The body disappears in a couple of days. If it is sick you cant be to quick to remove it from the aquarium, otherwise you might have more fishes affected by the disease. If I realise that a fish will not make it, I always net it up and kills it as soon as possible.
I don't think I have revealed any new secrets in this text. All of what I have been talking about is well known among "old hands" in the hobby. However, I hope that at least someone out there has received some useful tips along the way.
© Copyright 1995 Roger Häggström, all rights reserved
Häggström, Roger. (May 27, 1996). "Some tips from an "old hand"". The Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on June 19, 2013, from: http://www.cichlidae.com/article.php?id=10.