Cichlids are fishes from the family Cichlidae, in the order Perciformes – and members of a group known as the Labroidei, along with wrasses, damselfish and surf perches. This group is both large and very diverse – yet not all of them are suited to aquarium life, and not all are necessarily prized, or considered ‘Cichlids’ by Aquarists. Just as an aside, Oscar fish, Discus fish and Angelfish belong to the Cichlid family too, and they are popular in aquaria, but we do not speak of them as ‘Cichlids’.
Instead, aquarists usually divide the Cichlid species into three main groups: African Cichlids, Central and North American Cichlids, and South American Cichlids.
In Africa, theGreat Rift Valley region is home to a wide variety of different Cichlids that have been extremely popular since the 1960s and a lot of these species are endemic to the lake where they live.
African Cichlids are accordingly divided into four subcategories, depending on which lake they live in; Lake Malawi cichlids, Lake Tanganyika cichlids, Lake Victoria cichlids, and Other African cichlids. Dwarf cichlids are sometimes counted as a special group, even though they technically belong to one of the African or American cichlid groups. Today, there are more than 2000 described cichlid species and this number will most likely increase significantly in the future. Cichlids inhabit waters that have not been thoroughly researched by scientists, but that has now changed. Some cichlid species might unfortunately become extinct before we have a chance to find or study them. The introduction of new food fish in African lakes has for instance severely disturbed delicate ecosystems. Another serious looming threat is the proposed oil-exploration almost on the banks of picturesque Lake Malawi.
As mentioned earlier, cichlids have adapted to life in a wide range of different habitats and their degree of specialisation can be astonishing. This also means that some cichlid species will be more difficult to keep in aquariums than others. The mere size of some cichlids make them impractical or impossible to keep for most aquarists. The largest known cichlid species can reach a size of 50-100 cm. An example of such a large cichlid is the Boulengerochromis microlepis. This can be compared to the smallest cichlids – the dwarf cichlids in the Apistrogramma group – that never grows larger than 3 centimetres. Dwarf cichlids are very popular among aquarists since they do not require very large aquariums, but dwarf cichlids are also more sensitive than their larger counterparts and crowding a small aquarium with dwarf cichlids simply because they “fit in the box” is therefore not a good idea. These small cichlids can actually benefit from a larger aquarium, since it is easier for the aquarist to keep up the water quality in a big aquarium with plenty of water.
The temperature of the tank has a direct bearing on the activity and metabolism of cichlids, especially the fry. If you have cichlid fry in a warm tank, expect the little fishes to grow twice as fast and be twice as hungry for fry food. Inversely, a low temperature tank produces less active and less aggressive cichlids. A Cichlid keeper must keep the tank’s temperature ideal – 26°C. For fry, the temperature should be raised to 27°C. An electronic or digital heater would be ideal for a cichlid tank.
One of the most important aspects of cichlid care is not just getting, but maintaining the pH level. The water in the original habitat of the cichlids is high on the pH scale (alkaline). A 7.5 to 8.5 range on the pH scale would be ideal for the cichlid aquarium water. Do not make any sudden changes to the pH level of the aquarium water as this would adversely affect the health of your cichlids. Acidic water can be tackled by using substances like common soda which is both inexpensive, and effective. So be warned: If you are going to do any chemical adjustments to your aquarium water, place some water from the existing tank in a separate tank and keep your cichlids there, before adding anything to the water. Then, when conditions are ideal, slowly re-introduce them back into the main tank. Chemical adjustments with Cichlids in the tank may cause shock or even death. Any sudden changes to the immediate environment of the fish should be also be considered ill advised. Water filtration is also essential for healthy cichlids – so do not skimp in this piece of equipment.
Even though the different cichlid species can look and act very differently, they all share some common anatomic characteristics. All other known fish species have small intestines that leave the stomach from the right side, but with the cichlid species the small intestine leaves the body at the left side. The cichlids are also equipped with no more than one nostril. This is a characteristic that they share with the Damselfishes. Another interesting fact is that cichlids share a single key trait: the fusion of the lower pharyngeal bones into a single tooth-bearing structure. A complex set of muscles allow the upper and lower pharyngeal bones to be used as a second set of jaws for processing food, in turn allowing a division of labour between the “true jaws” (mandibles) and the “pharyngeal jaws” – which leads to it being said that cichlids have teeth in their throats!
In nature, Cichlids are efficient feeders that capture and process a very wide variety of food items. This is assumed to be one reason why they are so diverse. In captivity, Cichlids must be fed a variety of fresh, frozen and dry foods. The first step is to identify whether your Cichlid is herbivore, carnivore or omnivore. In the case of carnivores, pellets and flakes made with fish meal should be given. In the case of herbivores, avoid giving fishmeal-based foods, as this can lead to bloating and eventually, death in herbivores. Omnivores can be given a combination of plant-based and fishmeal-based commercial foods. Live or frozen food can also be given, provided you source these from a reliable supplier. You can also provide your cichlids with a natural food source by allowing algae to grow on the rocks in their tank! Most Cichlids, even the carnivores, will feed on the algae. There is a much more in-depth article on what cichlids require, both from the habitat and dietary aspect here
What makes Cichlids so interesting is their diversity of parental care. All cichlids provide parental care in one form or another, with the most devoted often nurturing free-swimming young until they are weeks or months old. This is not the norm for fishes. Most fish species do not provide parental care, and of those that do, it is typically the male that provides the parental care (in contrast to mammals or birds where the female is often the primary care-giver). But with cichlids, almost anything can and does happen and that is one of the most fascinating aspects of their biology.
Some species are substrate-spawners, meaning that they lay their eggs on the ground or on a hard surface like the leaf of a plant or on a log. Parental care then consists of guarding the eggs, fanning them to provide oxygenated water, then caring for the hatchlings (called wrigglers) which eventually become free swimming fry. Male and female parents usually engage in differing brooding roles. Most commonly, the male patrols the pair’s territory and repels intruders, while females fan water over the eggs, removing the infertile and later lead the fry while foraging. However, both sexes are able to perform the full range of parenting behaviour
Most substrate spawners are bi-parental, meaning both parents take care of the offspring, though their exact roles may vary. A few are however uni-parental with only one parent taking care of the babies.
Some cichlids are haremic (e.g., some of the Apistogramma)where there may be several females within the male’s territory, but were each female lays her eggs in her own cave. Each female also provides care for her own young, whereas the male protects the harem and the entire territory from other males and predators.
Secretive cave spawning cichlids lay their eggs in caves, crevices, and holes, frequently attaching the eggs to the roof of the chamber.
There is an interesting variation cave spawning seen particularly in Lake Tanganyika – the shell dwellers! Shell dwellers lay their eggs in the confines of an unused snail shell. This affords great protection to the offspring because a parent can sit in the mouth of the shell and block any predators. Sometimes the shell is so small that only the female can get into it and the male remains permanently outside on patrol. In such cases the male may be much larger than the female and may have many females in his territory, each with her own shell.
All species cichlids from Lake Malawi (except for one non-endemic species) and Lake Victoria, and some fromLake Tanganyika are mouth-brooders. Mouth-brooding is amazing! It is not restricted to cichlids (a number of other families have evolved it independently), but it is nonetheless an incredible thing to see. In these species, a female lays her eggs but rather than sticking them to the substrate, she picks them up in her mouth. It is said that this is why males have egg-spots – to entice the female into the correct position for fertilisation, by having her think what she sees are some of her eggs, which she promptly tries to collect. The male fertilizes the eggs in her mouth and they remain there, sometimes till hatching, and sometimes well-beyond. But that is where the male’s role ends. He has no bond with his mate or offspring and free from the need to participate in brood care, he goes on his merry way, fertilising the eggs of a succession of different females.
Mouth-brooding is not only found in females in cichlids. Some species are female mouth-brooders, others are bi-parental mouth-brooders and a few are male mouth-brooders. Even within the mouth-brooders, there are different types. In some South American species, there is a mixture of substrate spawning and mouth-brooding. We call these delayed mouth-brooders: they lay the eggs on the substrate, guard them for a while, and then pick up the young and mouth-brood them. To distinguish delayed mouth-brooders from the species which pick up the eggs right after spawning, the latter are called immediate mouth-brooders.
Free-swimming fry and parents communicate, both in captivity and in the wild. Frequently this communication is based on body movements, such as shaking and pelvic fin flicking. In addition, open and cave brooding parents assist in finding food resources for their fry. Multiple neo-tropical cichlid species perform leaf-turning and fin-digging behaviour.
The popularity of cichlids among aquarists likely stems from three things: many are easy to keep, there are so many kinds, and they do interesting things. With few exceptions cichlids can be kept and bred in aquaria. Hundreds of species are currently available in the hobby and many can be kept with a minimum of equipment in tanks ranging from 10 gallons on up. Some require specialized care and are not for the beginner, but many others are easy to keep and breed. But perhaps Cichlids are popular because they are such devoted parents: watching a pair of cichlids doing their thing is very hard to beat!
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