Freshwater Aquaria Part 2: A Guide to Selecting Fish for Your African Cichlid Aquarium

African cichlid aquariums are great for people who love large, colorful fish, and don't necessarily have a green thumb or a desire to keep live plants. Majority of African cichlid species are rock-dwellers, and all are native to one of three lakes in eastern Africa: Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika. These fish are well-known for being extremely aggressive and territorial, especially in breeding situations. Fish in this style aquarium are best suited living in one-sex-only aquariums (such as the all-male tank pictured below!) or a species-only environment in a ratio consisting of one male to three or four females.

  • Mbuna do best in mbuna-only cichlid tanks, with the occasional exception of bottom dwellers. Mbuna are well-known in the cichlid world for being extremely aggressive and territorial, and can kill other fish that don’t have the same aggression level. They also are not able to handle protein in their diet that haps and peacocks are able to eat.
  • Haps and Peacocks are aggressive, but typically milder than mbuna. Haps (species in the Haplochromis genus) and peacocks (species in the Aulonocara genus) are often able to be kept with other haps and peacocks, such as the mixed male Peacock tank below. 
  • Tanganyikans vary from quite small (such as Neolamprologus multifasciatus) to extremely large (such as Cyphotilapia frontosa). They are often kept in species-only tanks (meaning only that one species), but can be kept together in a community with other Tanganyikans or Africans, provided they are compatible in both size and temperament. 
  • Bottom feeders such as loaches and catfish in the Synodontis genus are very popular to keep with African cichlids. Synodontis eupterus (Featherfin catfish), Synodontis nigriventris (Upside-down catfish), Synodontis multipunctatus, and Synodontis petricola are common species found in the aquarium hobby than can be kept with African cichlids. They do well together because they are active at different times of the day. Cichlids will be diurnal, while the catfish are typically nocturnal.
  • Invertebrates aren’t generally recommended. Shrimp will definitely be eaten, and snails would be at risk from scavengers like loaches.

Different Aulonocara species (red), loaches (yellow), and Synodontis catfish (blue) coexist in a males-only cichlid tank.

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