Cichlid communities: When cultures collide

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Can you mix cichlids in the same tank and, if so, which ones? Jeremy Gay divides them up, analyses how their minds work and makes his community recommendations.

Mixing cichlids is a bit like mixing people. There are passive ones, aggressive ones, territorial ones, womanising ones, even wife-beating ones. They like different foods and different surroundings, so when we throw them together under the general "cichlid" banner we get problems. Yet many communities and combinations will work.

Dividing them

When I select cichlid communities I do it geographically and, ideally, biotopically. I divide up all the fish into where they come from in the wild, like South America, Central America and West Africa, and further sub-divide them into the actual lake or river in which they come from, like Lake Malawi or the Rio Negro.

This way you are grouping fish that come from the same water conditions. Lake Malawi (above) is hard and alkaline and highly oxygenated, whereas the Rio Negro is very soft and acidic, warmer than average and tea-stained in colour. They are very different environments.

Most cichlids have evolved to fit a very exacting set of water conditions and habitats. Keep all your fish in the water conditions they inhabit in the wild and they will be much happier. This may mean better coloration and even breeding, but importantly the fish won’t be fighting the wrong water conditions and be stressed from the outset.

I’m not advocating putting predator and prey together, but working with millions of years of evolution as opposed to working against them is much easier and, who knows, it may be right!

You can also research the décor from that area. That would mean having large boulders for Malawi mbuna, which they use as territories, for grazing algae from and for spawning on. Get wood and leaves for Rio Negro fish to hide in, spawn on and camouflage against.

Provide conditions close to nature and nature will give us a helping hand with those fiery cichlid temperaments.

Subdividing

Once we have listed fish, which have the same water parameter requirements in terms of acidity, temperature and décor, we can subdivide them by size, diet and spawning technique.

Start by only mixing cichlids of a similar size because you don’t want them to eat each other.

The world’s largest and smallest cichlid come from Lake Tanganyika in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, so their water conditions are the same. However, mix them and you’ll need a 3m/10’ tank in which you won’t see the tiny shell dweller and the giant Boulengerochromis microlepis will eat the Neolamprologus.

Mix cichlids at least two-thirds the size of their tank mates to ensure survival.

Diet

Also subdivide by diet. Again Lake Tanganyikan cichlids are classic examples, where you have algae-grazing, low-protein diet Tropheus sharing with predatory, fish-eating Frontosa (pictured above).

The length of gut varies greatly between the two and if you keep them together and try to feed say a prawn to the Frontosa, the Tropheus will get it first, risking the former’s death through wrong diet.

Spawning technique

Cichlids loosely divide into two main breeding types: pair-forming substrate spawners and non-pair forming mouthbrooders. There are mouthbrooding species in South America, although I’m talking about the well-known African species like Malawi cichlids, other Haplochromines and some Tilapiines here.

A pair of substrate spawners like Kribensis, Jewel cichlids (pictured above) or Jack Dempseys will need to claim a section of the tank, usually with a woody or rocky cave in the middle, under which they lay eggs and both of the parents tend and protect their eggs and fry.

A male and female will form a pair, select a spawning site and clear it of all other fish. They spawn, protect the eggs 24/7 by chasing away other fish.  Then when the eggs hatch they shepherd the vulnerable fry around to find food.

They will proceed to clear a territory, hold that territory and stop anything eating their ever-spreading shoal of fry!

These cichlids should be given roomy tanks with as few other cichlids as possible. Even dwarf cichlids will take over half of a 1.2m/4’ tank when protecting fry.

When not breeding substrate spawners are usually peaceful, so combining them with too many cichlids or more aggressive species will prevent them carving out territories and they will stress.

Mouthbrooders

Mouthbrooding Africans don’t form pairs however, and a single male wants to rule the universe, be the only male of his species and mate with hundreds of females!

His day will demand that he eats, chases, eats, forms a territory, mates, chases, eats, mates, holds territory, eats, chases — and in no particular order.

What’s more, all his neighbouring males will feel the same way.

The clever aquarist can actually shrink that male’s world and instead of allocating him a 150cm/5’ wide territory can get that and his neighbour’s territories down to 15cm/6” — meaning you can get lots more fish into a tank. This will be better for competition, the power-crazed males can’t launch a global takeover and your overcrowded Malawi mbuna community will be created.

However, if these fish have not adapted to live this way, it can prove highly stressful for them and, more importantly, when we try to combine the two different breeding patterns of polygamous, maternal mouthbrooders (Malawi mbuna) with monogamous pair-forming substrate spawners  — Jewel cichlids and Kribs for example — it will sadly end in bouts of aggression.

They won’t be speaking the same biological language.

They have different territorial and mating requirements and will constantly cross each other’s invisible territorial barriers and not realise it — not to mention suffer differences in water parameter and dietary requirements.

Dither fish have their value

Dither fish are often referred to when keeping and breeding cichlids. They are generally hardy, active, shoaling — but not cichlids. Silver dollars, Tinfoil barbs and Giant danios are good examples.

Mixing dither fish with cichlids gives territorial males something to occasionally chase yet not see as direct threats. This may help the chaser hold a pair bond with his female as he feels he needs to protect her, yet will keep him occupied and help prevent her being beaten up!

If a cichlid pair does spawn it may be wise to section off the dither fish with a clear divider so they won’t get hurt.

Rogues will be named and shamed

A handful of cichlids cause more trouble than others. Trying to integrate them with others usually means they dominate and instigate aggression.

The worst troublemakers are the Midas cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellum) of Central America (pictured above), Africa’s Hornet cichlid (Tilapia buttikoferi) and the Auratus cichlid (Melanochromis auratus) of Lake Malawi.

At best add these beasts last and only as juveniles — but you’ll be much better not adding them at all.

Do…

…buy cichlids as juveniles and grow them together.

Aggression levels will be less and the fish will be far more tolerant of each other’s company and territories.

Don’t…

…add showy, mature male fish to existing communities.

These will be seen as a threat in terms of taking territory and stealing food and females, and are certain to be attacked.

Communities that will work

Tanganyikan, small to medium sized substrate spawner community (120cm/4' tank):

  • One pair Julidochromis
  • One pair Neolamprologus pulcher
  • One pair of either N. brevis, ocellatus or multifasciatus
  • One pair Neolamprologus leleupi (pictured above)
  • Single Neolamprologus tretocephalus
  • One pair Altolamprologus calvus or compressiceps

South American, large, seasonal substrate spawner community (180cm/6') tank:

These can all be added as sexed pairs or groups:

  • Uaru spp. (pictured above)
  • Geophagus spp.
  • Satanoperca spp.
  • Heros spp.
  • Hoplarchus spp.
  • Acarichthys heckelii
  • Hypselacara spp.

South American, medium, seasonal substrate spawner community (120cm/4') tank:

These can all be added as sexed pairs or groups:

  • Pterophyllum spp. (Altums pictured above by Jeff Kubina, Creative Commons)
  • Mesonauta spp.
  • Biotodoma spp.
  • Cleithracara maronii
  • Laetacara thayeri

Malawi mbuna, medium-sized maternal mouthbrooder community (120cm/4') tank:

  • Labidochromis caeruleus
  • Metriaclima estherae
  • Pseudotropheus acei
  • Pseudotropheus elongatus
  • Melanochromis joanjohnsonae
  • P. sp. 'red top ndumbi'
  • Labeotropheus trewavasae

Malawi haps, medium to large-sized maternal mouthbrooder community (150cm/5') tank:

  • Placidochromis electra
  • Cyrtocara moori (pictured above by Riftreef, Creative Commons)
  • Protomelas annectens

South American dwarf cichlids:

These include Rams and Apistogramma, and are actually best as a single pair in community of other non-cichlids like tetras.

Central American cichlids:

These are best as one species per tank with other fish, but not other cichlids. 'Collections' of similarly-sized Central Americans are quite common, but not what I would class as working communities. A pair each of Vieja, Herichthys and Thorichthys in a 6' tank would work.

West African cichlids:

These are best housed as one species per tank with other fish but not other cichlids. I would choose a single pair of Kribensis or single pair of Jewel cichlids with west african characins, barbs and catfish.

You ask us…

Jeremy Gay answers some of your more frequently asked questions about making the right community decisions.

Will dividing and sub-dividing work for all the cichlids?

If the tank is large enough then yes it should, but if you wanted to create a community of large substrate-spawning Central American cichlids, like Vieja (pictured at the top of the page) the tank would need to be 1.8-2.4m/6-8’ long. They also make a habit of hybridising.

Although most substrate spawning cichlids are peaceful outside breeding they can be terrors when they have fry, so your community from South America may be anything but peaceful at breeding time, unless the tank is big enough for all other fish to stay well clear.

I find I can get away with mixing cichlids from different parts of the world just by crowding them. What do you think?

Put 50 mixed cichlids into a bare tank with no features to claim as territories and it will seem to work, but closer inspection may reveal higher stress levels because the fish cannot behave naturally, they grow more slowly and many may be denied the opportunity to pair and breed.

The only crowded tank I recommend is one of Malawi mbuna or possible one for Tanganyikan Tropheus, but with the latter it would be a single species group.

A mish-mash of cichlids from all over the world and in high numbers may keep them all alive, but this scenario won’t be to anyone’s liking and colours and behaviours may be lost.

My cichlids are all fighting. Should I add some more?

Unless it is an understocked Malawi mbuna aquarium, no.

If you have a tank of fighting cichlids never add any more. You may even need to remove and rehome some.

Make a list of everything you have in the tank and note the tank’s statistics, and seek further specialist advice.

Where do I stand on mixing hybrids like Parrot cichlids into communities?

The Parrot is thought to be a mix between two substrate spawners — the Central American Midas cichlid and the South American severum. That gives you a pH between 6 and 8 as a guide and this fish will prefer some space, not crowding.

They try to hybridise with other Central American cichlids and have deformed bodies and mouthparts, so are best as the only cichlid in a tank of other fish.

However, they are constantly mixed with other cichlids from all over the world and generally  have a peaceful nature.

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