Book Review: The Cichlid Aquarium

This article reviews the book, The Cichlid Aquarium, written by Dr. Paul Loiselle and published by the Tetra Press® (©1994). This book is in the CAS library, but is usually under great demand so if you want to read it you will probably have to either reserve it or be pretty quick on the draw when it’s returned.

First of all, I’ll make a few comments about the book’s production quality. The Tetra Press is well known for the excellent quality of reproduction and binding, and this book is no exception. The quality of binding is simply superb. The paper quality is also first rate (thick and glossy) and the color photographs that adorn almost every one of its 450 pages are also perfectly reproduced. The photographs themselves are also of highest quality, although they do (quite appropriately) tend to emphasize anatomical clarity over artistic composition.

A few comments are in order about the editing of the book, however.

Because the book is published by Tetra®, Tetra’s products figure prominently in the recommendations for fish foods, etc. Being of an exceptionally cynical bent myself, I find this rather bemusing, although I think others may have a problem with it too. But Tetra’s products are of generally high quality, and they do not get exclusive attention in the book, so I have no real objection to them being recommended even if those recommendations are clearly biased.

Another editorial short-coming is the lack of a bound index (although the CAS library has a third-party index in a small pamphlet). This is a reference book, after all, and a reference book NEEDS a handy index. And the table of contents contain no more precise information than chapter headings (no section headings are included). And a list of figures is both missing and sorely missed. Finding information and/or a photograph of a specific cichlid is therefore an unnecessarily laborious chore.

On the issue of style, most annoying is the fact that The Cichlid Aquarium is not written in proper English paragraphs. Almost all of the paragraphs have one or (rarely) two sentences. What is more, consecutive sentences are given their own paragraphs even if they continue the same thought. For example, on page 246 we have the following discussion on the feeding of Lake Malawi cichlids:

    These cichlids are easily fed.

    All accept the usual live and prepared foods eagerly.

Why, for heaven’s sake, are these two sentences not combined into a single paragraph? The book’s writing style has a highly disjointed feel, as if you were reading someone’s lecture notes rather than a book. I found this made reading the book for any length of time tiresome. But a thorough once-over by a competent editor could easily group such disjointed statements into fluid prose, and I would strongly recommend that this be done for the book’s next edition.

OK, so much for technical quibbling. The value of the book lies in the information it contains, not in the structure of its language. So is the book useful or not?

In this area, The Cichlid Aquarium is first rate, easily the best general cichlid reference available. Certainly other more specialized books can be found that deal with the cichlids of a single lake or continent in more depth, and there are photographic atlases that have a more complete collection of identification photos, but this book provides an unmatched description of the keeping and biology of all of the world’s cichlids.

The first chapter of the book is devoted to the family’s place in fish evolution and discusses the things that set cichlids apart from other fishes. The great diversity of the family, its geographical distribution (both natural and human-introduced), and the plight of the world’s endangered cichlid faunas are all discussed.

The second chapter introduces cichlids as aquarium residents. The very wide range of predatory and aggressive behaviors that various cichlids display toward other fishes is discussed. The differences between predatory behavior and territorial aggression are also discussed. A section is also devoted to cichlids’ attitude toward plants. The various cichlids show a marked diversity here as well, ranging from the welcoming to the wantonly destructive.

Discussions on setting up and furnishing a cichlid aquarium take up chapters three and four. Temperature control, lighting, filtration, incidental accessories, substrate selection, planting, and hiding places are all discussed. Much of this information is of course applicable to all aquaria, and this particular discussion is concise and thorough. The uses of dither fish and target fish are also discussed, as well as compatible bottom feeders.

Feeding and maintenance chores are dealt with in chapter five. There is a good section on both meaty and green fresh foods for both adults and fry. However, the discussion of prepared foods is devoted exclusively to Tetra products.

The discussion on nitrogen cycle management deals with the importance of water changes and biological filters. However, Dr. Loiselle considers nitrite to be the primary toxin in aquaria, and only a cursory discussion of ammonia poisoning is given. It is stated that ammonia poisoning is only likely to be a problem in Rift Lake cichlid tanks, as ammonia is the form of the innocuous ammonium ion in other aquaria. While this assertion may be true in acidic water areas, the fact is that any cichlid kept in alkaline water is susceptible to ammonia poisoning. I feel that this danger should not have been so quickly dismissed.

Chapter seven discusses the breeding of cichlids in the aquarium. It contains a very interesting discourse on the differences in behavior between monogamous cichlids and polygamous cichlids. Monogamous cichlids typically maintain their monogamous relationship for only a single breeding effort, but this effort also includes the biparental care of the resulting young. The polygamous cichlids are further divided into harem polygamists and open polygamist. The male cichlids among the harem polygamous species will control access to a group of females for an extended period of time. Almost all harem polygamists are cave spawners. The open polygamists however are all maternal mouthbrooders. In such cichlids both male and female may share multiple partners in a single breeding effort, and no relationship between the partners exist before or after the breeding act.

Chapters eight through eleven are devoted to a discussion of all the major groups of cichlids. The chapters are divided by geographical origin, except for chapter eleven, which is devoted to dwarf cichlids from all locales. Dr. Loiselle defines a dwarf cichlid as a cichlid that can be kept as a breeding group in a smaller tank with other fishes, and thus a dwarf cichlid by his definition must be both small and non-aggressive.

The first group of cichlids to be discussed are the primitive cichlid species from Madagascar and India. Next to be discussed are the West African riverine cichlids (not including the commonly seen dwarf species). The African Great Lake cichlids and the New-World cichlids take up the next two chapters respectively, followed by the chapter on the dwarves.

The final chapter of the book contains a useful collection of further references and a list of cichlid specialty societies and other sources of information. Advice is also offered on how to locate original research papers on cichlid biology.

The Cichlid Aquarium is a valuable resource. The lack of a handy index limits its convenience as a reference source, and the lack of proper paragraphs makes reading it a little laborious, but as far as its information goes, it’s unbeatable.?