The Great Rift Valley of Africa is home to some of the most fascinating fish on the planet. In the past 25 years African cichlids have risen to be one of the most popular and enduring fish to keep in the hobby. Their advanced social hierarchies and vast color radiation almost guarantee the fish fancier’s devout attention.
More than 20 million years ago the Great Rift Valley was formed by the separation of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. In this valley, some of the largest and deepest lakes of the world are contained. Being virtually land locked has kept the water chemistry extremely stable, and teaming with life. The average temperature of these lakes changes very little through out the course of the year, with variation of less than 5 degrees Celsius. Sediment has washed into the lakes dissolving minerals and salts from the surrounding lands explaining the higher alkalinity and general hardness of the water. These lakes are so vast that they could be called inland seas with a flora and fauna rivaled only by the oceans. The rocky shores and sandy bottom are playground to literally thousands of distinct species of fish.
African Cichlids are arguably one of the best examples of evolution and rapid speciation that scientists are studying today. 95% of the worlds chichlid species are endemic to the African rift lakes, in other words you won’t find anything like them anywhere else in the world! Because these lakes are isolated from other bodies of water, the inhabitants display Darwin’s theory of natural selection to it’s fullest. With out any new real estate to expand to, the inhabitants have adapted specialized feeding and mating habits. Every niche in the water column has been filled in order to compete for survival in unimaginable ways and best insure the proliferation of their gene pool. Observing these behaviors in the aquarium is the next best thing to seeing them in nature. Recreating a comfortable environment for your new pets can be challenging the say the least, but there are a few things we can do to make their stay hospitable.
Cichlids from the Rift Lakes come in a seemingly unlimited spectrum of color morphs and shapes, with new species being discovered and documented all the time. All these colors help to distinguish potential mates, family members, and enemies. Known to be extremely territorial, males will often defend their right to hold a territory or mate with out rest, often leaving other tank mates with chewed fins, and submissive colors, or worse. Plenty of rock-work should be piled as safely as possible through out the tank to give escaping fish a place to hide from their pursuers.
Most of the Cichlids are “mouth-brooders”. Once the male and female have spawned usually the female will take the eggs into her mouth and incubate them for around 4 weeks. This incredible parenting instinct allows for fry to survive at their most vulnerable time : while they are still eggs. During this time she cannot or will not feed. After the female’s month long self-induced fast the baby fry are released, free swimming, hungry and with an obvious advantage over the more familiar egg laying varieties found in the lakes.
Mbuna cichlids from lake malawi for the most part are algae grazers. Their teeth have adapted to rasp or scrape algae covered rocks in search of their primary food source. Along the way they pick up all sorts of micro-organisms that live in the algae. They are 90% vegetarian. The fact that their digestive track can only accommodate mostly vegetable matter due to it’s long design, has been the downfall of many the hobbyist who have suffered with the “Malawi Bloat”.
The first signs of “bloat” are usually white stringy feces, followed by the withdrawal of the affected fish at feeding time. Heavy breathing, fin clamping (usually pectoral fins being held tightly against the torso) and problems with balance and swaying seem to preclude the final stage were the fish literally balloons up and expires. These symptoms usually persist for anywhere from 3 days to 10 days. The bloating is caused by either a protozoan parasite or bacteria which is already present in most mbuna’s digestive track. Once the fish’s immune system is lowered, the parasites/ bacteria take hold and multiply, blocking the digestive track and ultimately consuming the internal organs.
Once your fish has bloated it is usually to late to save them. Worst of all Bloat seems to be contagious. Other fish in your tank can contract bloat though sifting and eating waste left to rot in the substrate. That is why it is so important to watch your fish eat at meal time. Cichlids are voracious eaters, and if for some reason one fish isn’t eating or is floating near the bottom. Something is definitely wrong.
The dreaded Malawi Bloat can be induced by a number of factors including, stress, poor water conditions, overfeeding, and in most cases: feeding the wrong type of food! Avoid foods that contain warm blooded animal by-products . A good quality spirulina flake diet and weekly water changes of at least 30% can go a long way to prevent illness in your tank of Mbuna.
Many medications exist for bloat, some more harmful than others to your fish and your tank setup. For starters a large water change is recommended before treating the entire tank. It’s quite likely that poor water conditions are the cause once you’ve eliminated diet. Metronidazole and Clout seem to be two best options available as treatment. The “Metro” being a lot easier on the fish, but requiring a prescription from a veterinarian in order to purchase in Canada.
The Top Three Mbuna keeping secrets
- Feed mostly a veggie diet.
- Remove all decaying waste when you do your weekly water changes using a water vaccum . 30% per week bare minimum.
- Choose a fine substrate that is capable of buffering Ph and water hardness like Arogonite or crushed coral. This makes water chemistry simple.
These fascinating behaviors and general hardiness make for great entertainment in the enthusiast’s home aquarium. While these fish may not be suitable to beginners who haven’t gotten their feet (or hands) wet, they will provide the intermediate to advanced fish keepers with unending hours of enjoyment fascination and possibly addiction!