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shellFrequently Asked Questions shell

The Cichlid Family is our first love here at Something Fishy Inc. But, I as the owner of an aquarium store, I love most fish in general. We specialize in Rift Lake fishes, some New World fishes, and exotic catfish and "plecos." Plus, we have a growing inventory of nano-reef setups.One of my sayings in this hobby is that "fish keeping is like politics; one person will tell you one thing, another person will tell you another." The information below is based on my 30+ years of experience in the hobby/business, though others are free to disagree.

Q: What are cichlids?
Cichlids (pronounced "sick-lids") are fishes from the family Cichlidae in the order Perciformes. The family Cichlidae, a major family of perciform fish, is both large and diverse. Estimates of the number of cichlid species range from 1,900 to 2,200, making it one of the three largest vertebrate families. Cichlids span a wide range of body sizes, from species as small as 2.5 centimeters (1.0 in.) in length (e.g. neolamprologus multifasciatus ) to much larger species approaching 1 metre (3 ft) in length (e.g. boulengerochromis and cichla). For more info, visit

Q: What size tank should I have?
A: Anything from 2 gallons and up can work. A pair of shell dwellers can be housed in a small tank with a basic filter and heater. However, bigger is generally better, and larger tanks provide more options. Longer tanks with increased surface area are always better than a tall, narrow tank. If space is limited, choose the most gallons that will fit your budget. The tank should be placed in an area away from a window/sunlight or heat and AC vents. Larger tanks (100 gallons+) are better positioned to cross the floor joists than run parallel to the length of joists because weight is then spread over better support. Always use a solid and level base! Water weighs about 8.9lbs per gallon, so take this into consideration when choosing location.

Q: What filter should I choose?
The more filtration the better! I typically recommend two filters. At a minimum, use at least a larger filter with an air pump and airstone or sponge filter for a backup. Power failures occur and your main filter may not always restart. An air pump will work and keep your fishes alive, especially if you are not home! Keep air pumps above the tank. Otherwise, you will need to add a check valve. Regardless of your choice, it is best to have "three-stage filtering" (mechanical, chemical & biological). We are happy to help you select specific filtration for your intended setup.

Q: How should I heat my tank?
A: Choose the best heater available that you can afford. "5 watts per gallon" is usually recommended up to 50 gallon tanks. 200 watts is usually good for a 55 gallon, 250 watts for 75-90 gallons, and 300 watts for 100-200 gallon tanks. Keep the temp around 78 F degrees. For discus fish, 85 F degrees is normal. Once you choose a heater, monitor it to make sure the temp does not fluctuate.

Q: What substrate should I use?
A: African cichlids are not picky. I personally like to use CaribSea "ivory coast" substrate or a coral sand not less than 1 mm. These help "buffer" your water to maintain a higher pH and hardness, and also look more natural. The larger sand size is less of a pain to clean and does not stir up as easily. Natural gravels also work well. For "new world" cichlids that demand softer water, I would use a natural gravel or some of the eco substrates designed for plants. You can have a thin layer or a 2" layer, but this is more a matter of preference.

Q: What lighting should I use?
A: For a "fish only" tank, a standard florescent light is all you need. Only live plants demand greater lighting (but that is a whole topic in itself!). The newer T5 lights are very nice and provide a wide light spectrum for displaying a range of colors. The light only needs to be on 8 hours or less. A light timer works great. I set my home tanks to turn on 6am-8am and 6pm-11pm when I can enjoy them the most.

Q: What maintenance do I need to follow?

A: Weekly water changes of 25% tank volume are best, including gravel vacuuming. Also add water conditioner as needed. We add marine salt to our Rift Lake cichlid tanks for a natural conditioner and healing supplement, adding 1 tablespoon per 5 gallons on average. We also carry liquid supplements for your cichlids. When you do your water change, you should unplug your heater and possibly your filter. If you have a single filter system on your tank, you do not want to clean the filter the same time you do a water change. Wait a few days and then clean the filter system. If you have two filters, you can alternate their cleaning. The reason to avoid a one-time full cleaning of tank and filtration is that you do not want to destroy the beneficial bacteria that accumulates and breaks down your ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. If you clean too much at once, you can cause a breakdown of your established tank. This reintroduce ammonia or nitrites, and your fishes may become stressed, weakening their immune system and leaving them vulnerable to disease.

Q: How many fish can I keep?
A: Conventional wisdom says "one inch of fish per gallon." However, I usually disagree and recommend 1 inch per 2 to 5 gallons. For saltwater fish, the rule is 1 inch per 10 gallons. The reason for a more conservative approach is that bigger fish produce far more waste than little fish such as guppies or tetras. When stocking, also keep in mind that you do not have the amount of water on the stated size tank because of the displacement from gravel, rocks, and decorations. Most fishes (particularly cichlids) grow more than one inch and often average around 6 inches in size. Your stocking level or "bioload" also depends on your amount of filtering and frequency of water changes. The more fishes you add, the more filtering and water changes you need. With cichlids, we tend to purposely "overcrowd" some cichlid tanks to keep down aggression. If you are setting up a display tank, consider an "all male" fish tank, as males are usually more colorful than the females. This also tends to keep aggression down. However, if you want to breed fish, keep more females per male for Malawian cichlids and some Tanganikans. There are a few Tanganikans that are pair bonding and will not tolerate others within the tank. We can help you choose compatible species that will coexist relatively peacefully. It is often best to start with young fish and grow them up together. Cichlids usually grow quickly, especially in a large, well-maintained tank. I usually recommend starting and "cycling" the tank with some "dither" fishes such as giant danios, rainbows, tiger barbs, or rosy barbs. These fish can usually remain with most of the cichlids without trouble. For example, in a 55 gallon tank, I would start with 6 to 10 dither fishes. 10 days later, I would add 6 to 8 young cichlids. Choose the smaller and less aggressive species on your list. Then, 10 days later I would add another 6-8 more cichlids. Add the more aggressive and larger fish last so that the others establish their territories in the tank. Move the decor around and add a little food to distract the existing fishes from the newcomers. The final batch of fishes should be your scavengers, such as synodontis catfish, bushynose plecos, botias, or loaches. I'd recommend 5 to 6 total. The result is a total of approx. 25 fishes in a 55 gallon. After a year, you may have to "thin the herd" to balance the tank before trouble arises with more aggressive fish. Or, you can get a bigger tank!This above is just an example. There is no "one right way." Each setup is different and depends on the types of fishes. Please email us or talk to your independent LFS (local fish store). Your local small store is often a hobbyist first and can provide valuable information.

Most Cichlids are easy to care for & maintain for many years plus provide endless education & entertainment for the whole family.

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