Book Review: Malawi Cichlids in Their Natural Habitat

In a perhaps misguided effort, I decided to buy some more expensive books for the library this year to complement the myriad of shorter, inexpensive “tfh”-type books that the library already owns. One of these longer books is the subject of this review: Malawi Cichlids in Their Natural Habitat, Second Edition, by Ad Konings.

First of all, some notes on the book’s technical quality. In this respect, it is superb. There are over 1000 photographs in the book’s 345 pages. All of these photographs are highest-quality color and almost all of these photographs were taken within Lake Malawi itself, and only a very few of the photographs are of aquarium specimens. Almost all of the photographs are new, although there is naturally some reproduction of the content of Ad Konings many other books. For each photograph a location and species identification are provided. The quality of text is also very high. Unlike some English editions of German aquarium books (The Optimum Aquarium comes rapidly to mind) the translation from German to English is impeccable. Only the retention of a few >> and << symbols found instead of quotation marks reveal the book’s Deutsche origins.

The book is true to its name, and discusses the cichlids in their natural habitat rather than in the aquarium. As a result, the book is not a typical aquarium book. Each fishes’ aquarium culture is given only a cursory discussion. What is discussed, however, is the lake’s different habitats and the fish species found in each.

Konings identifies eight different environments in the lake. These are: the wave-washed rocky habitat; the sediment-free rocky habitat; the sediment-rich rocky habitat; the intermediate habitat; the shallow intermediate habitat; shallow sediment-rich bays; the sandy habitat; and the open water habitat. Each habitat is given its own chapter. Although unusual, this arrangement serves the stated aims of the book well, but not perfectly. Obviously, most fish are to be found in more than one of the eight different habitats; since, for example, a predator would hardly care if its quarry crossed from a sediment-free rocky habitat to a sediment-rich rocky habitat. It would just keep chasing it anyway. Instead, each fish species is discussed in the habitat in which it is most likely to be found. This results in an inconvenient (for aquarists) separation of the various fish groups. An aquarist is most likely to want to identify a fish that looks like, say, a Pseudotropheus tropheops, rather than try to identify a fish that is known to come from a sediment-rich bay. Konings, however, discusses the tropheops complex of fishes in five different chapters because this group has representatives in a variety of different habitats. This requires that the reader look through most of the book if trying to identify a tropheops-complex fish.

Be that as it may, Konings serves the purpose of fish identification very well. All of the over 600 cichlid species of Malawi are represented. Different populations of almost all these species are illustrated as well. Particularly interesting are maps of the lake with accompanying illustrations of related fish populations that are found at various locations around the lake. Such information makes quite clear that many of our Malawi community tanks are not, as we would assume, representative of a natural assemblage of fish, but instead they include fish that occupy quite different locations and habitats in nature and so would be unlikely to have ever encountered each other. My own tank, for example, includes fish from sediment-rich rocky habitats (Labidichromis caerulus), the intermediate habitat (Aulonocara sp “stuartgranti marleri” and Sciaenochromis fryeri), the sandy habitat (Cyrtocara moorii), and the open water habitat (Copadichromis azureus). I take some comfort in knowing that my tank actually does contain some rock, some sand, and some open water, so everyone in there sees some representation of their own natural habitat. ?