Practical Information About Keeping, Breeding and Buying Dwarf Cichlids

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   Good Habitat in the Dwarf Cichlid Aquarium

     The natural habitats of dwarf cichlids vary widely and many aquarists try to duplicate natural habitats in their tanks.  This is a great practice and I have had great success when trying to reproduce natural habitats.  However, I believe that most dwarfs are highly adaptable and will thrive in many different types of environments as long as they are complex environments.  By this I mean they must have a a lot of nooks, crannies and places to hide and spread out in.  Complex habitats can be developed int he aquarium in a number of different ways which will be discussed below.

      Before we talk about the things we put in the tank lets talk about a few environmental basics.  Temperature is one of the most important.  Most dwarfs do well in a range of water conditions, however temps of 74 - 78 F are ideal.  Fish will normally do just fine in temperatures a few degrees warmer or colder, but, research has shown that when breeding and raising fry temps of 76 F result in the most balanced sex ratios.  Light is also important.  Most dwarfs come from water that are deeply shaded all day long and receive little direct sunlight.  Additionally, many of the fish that come from blackwater and whitewater environments receive light that is filtered by the water.  All this means that in their natural habitats most dwarfs live in subdued light.  In the aquarium they will usually be more comfortable and colorful in tanks with fairly low light.  I use full spectrum fluorescent lamps only and vary the watts per gallon depending on the plants in the tank.  Although, in general, I rarely use more than 1 - 1 1/2 watts of light per gallon of water.

caves and plants make up this dwarf cichlid habitatClick photo to enlarge
     This habitat shows how plants, rocks and caves can be combined to create a complex habitat.  Note the female Apistogramma cacatuoides in the lower right.  She is in front of a cave and in a clearing that is sheltered from view from the rest of the tank as the large mass of java Moss creates a solid wall between sections of the tank.  On the left a male Ram is above a flat rock that the Ram pair used repeatedly for spawning. At times I had both the cacatuoides and Rams with fry at once.  Each species had a very defined territory that suited its particular needs and the only serious squabbles were over the exact placement of the dividing line.  However, most commonly, the male cacatuoides would rarely venture farther than the edge of the java moss divider.

      One thing that helps reduce brightness is the use of a dark substrate.  Sand, gravel, formulated substrates and bare bottoms are all used to successfully keep dwarfs and most hobbyists will argue in favor of the method they use.  I do a little of several things but almost never do I use bare bottom tanks.  I have used them successfully to spawn and raise fish but they are too stark for my personal preference.  For many years I used only very small grained gravel that I collected from a variety of sources.  I have always had good luck with this and continue to use this type of gravel in most of  my tanks.  I spread the gravel in an even layer that varies from as little as a quarter inch to several inches in depth.  This type of gravel is generally small enough to be moved by the fish and provides a firm base layer in the tank.  It is a good substrate for rooted plants and is easy to siphon clean.

      In the past few years I have become a big fan of using sand as a substrate.  In nature most dwarfs are in waters that have either a mud or sand bottom and many will happily spend their time sifting through the sand in search of a morsel.  Sand is easy to clean and can usually withstand a light siphoning.  One caution with sand is to not make the layer too deep.  The sand forms a dense layer that is highly resistant to mater movement.  If your sand layer is too deep it is likely that you will develop pockets of anaerobic bacteria that can pose problems.  The dense layer that sand makes also is not very good for plant roots and if you want rooted plants you will need to make accommodations.  Sand is very convenient for most people.  You can but sand box sand at most home supply centers.  A great source is a brick & rock supplier. Although they cater to contractors they will gladly sell you a bag and they often have a choice of sizes and colors.  

       Before you make a final decision about your substrate you should give some thought to the decor that you will use in your tank.  As I stated earlier it is critical that you have a complex environment with as many "hidey holes" and "swim throughs" as possible.  If you are keeping a single fish in a community tank this is not as much  of an issue but if you are keeping more than one member of the same species you need some complexity.  The amount of complexity will depend on what types of stocking levels you are shooting for.  If you have a pair of a single species in an adequate sized tank you can get by with two or three small areas of complexity.  As the group sizes get larger or the tank gets smaller it is important to increase complexity.

Complex Aquarium Habitat with Sand Plants and cavesClick photo to enlarge
     This tank was set up as a breeding tank for a single pair of Apistogrammas.  It has a sand substrate, a pile of Oak leaves which creates many hiding places, a variety of live plants, several large rocks and two caves.  The caves are very hard to spot as they are mostly buried in the sand.  Note the several large rocks under the leaves.  These create a barrier to any fish that is in the clearing on the left side of the tank.  It is always a good idea to create separate areas in the tank when possible.
       Complexity can be created in different ways. A  pile of rocks that creates a number of passages and caves, a handful of small sections of pvc pipe, broken flower pots, coconut shell caves, elaborate driftwood and much more can be used to create complex habitats. I have used all of these methods (except PVC pipe - too sterile for me!) with great success and you can make some great tank set ups based on them.  However, I believe there are two great ways to create excellent complexity while actually improving the habitat in the tank.

      The first method is the use of a layer Oak leaves on the bottom of the tank.  A  layer that is two or three inches thick makes an amazing labyrinth for your fish to swim through, hide in and reproduce in.  In their natural habitats most dwarf cichlids are associated with leaves and in some places incredible densities of fish have been recorded in leaf chocked waters.  I recommend Oak leaves for a couple of reasons.  They are a stiff leaf when dried and will retain much of their stiffness when waterlogged.  This means that they will hold their shape to create great caves and passages.  Oak leaves also contain tannins that will help to soften your water and many believe that these tannins contain beneficial compounds that aid the fish.  Be aware that the same tannins that provide these benefits will slowly staining your water a darker color, the exact shade depending on the amount of leaves you use, the species of Oak and the age and storage of the leaves.  Oak trees grow in most parts of the country and it is usually a simple thing to collect leaves in the fall.  Be sure to wait for the leaves to dry naturally and fall off. These will be better leaves than those collected green and dried.  Take care where you collect from as in some places trees are sprayed with chemicals that can be harmful to your fish.

Dense plantings create excellent habitat for apistogrammas2Click photo to enlarge
     This thicket of pygmy chain swords provides a very complex habitat.  In tanks that are this thick with vegetation fish find hundreds of hiding places and passage ways.  It is possible to maintain very high fish densities in these types of tanks as can be seen with this group of adult Apistogramma commbrae.  There were about 40 adult fish in the 10 gallon tank and aggression was never a factor because of the dense plantings.  

      Finally,  the method I use most to generate complexity and the one I believe is the very best is the use of lots of live plants.  Most of my tanks are nearly chocked with live plants creating a maze of passageways and hiding places.  I use rooted plants, loose plants and floating plants that combine to give great conditions.  These plants act as natural filters constantly improving water quality.  They provide live surfaces that are perfect environments for the microorganisms that the fish will graze upon.  Although few dwarfs actually eat plants many will consume plant parts as part of their constant search for food.  I don;t have any magic formulas for plants. There are lots of plant experts and you can get as deep into aquatic plants as you want and have a great time doing it.

     My approach to plants is to grow them for my fish so I want those that will do well in the environments I provide naturally to my fish - low light & soft acid water.  I give more specific information about the plans I grow and how I grow them in Aquarium Plants but I will quickly give you my secret here.  Trial and error. That's my method, trial and error.  I am always buying new plants and trying to grow them.  If  they thrive and need to be cut back then I am happy if they linger and die I know that they are not good for me.  Of course, I know enough to stay away from the plants that requirements opposite what I provide but I have found a number of different plants that really grow good for me.

       In my breeding tanks I combine a lot of plants with a few caves that are situated on the edges of open areas in the tank.  I generally try to set up only one cave site for a pair and two or three for a trio.  In each site I try to have a defined open area that is surrounded on several sides by dense stands of plants. I put a cave in this area that faces away from the High traffic areas of the tank.  I believe that most females are calmer if they don't see other fish when they emerge from their cave.  Check out the photos for a few examples of breeding and rearing tanks.  In rearing tanks I like to go for high densities of plants to add extra hiding places and water filtration.

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