Cichlids: Are They Really The Bullies On The Block?

One of the benefits of being one of the CAS club auctioneers is that I get to have a really good look at all the bags of fish, and you get a real good feeling for what is popular and what is not. Cichlids, it seems to many of our members, is like SCOTCH, you either love it or you hate it!! I can see and feel that the reputation of African species of cichlids is being rubbed off to the South American cichlids. This is evident when I try to auction off a bag of cichlids and everyone sits on their hands, too afraid to even try to put these beautiful fish in their community tanks. Well I think that using the same paint brush to paint all species of cichlids is not correct. So I would like to shed some light, and my personal info about some of the differences between African and South American cichlids.

There is no doubt that many Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika cichlids are the most colorful in their behavior and appearance. But many of them will only fight or rumble during breeding season or if someone else is picking or looking for a fight. As an example, most Lake Malawi Aulonocara peacocks are very calm and friendly when mixed with other species from their lake. The males will only run and chase when he has picked a rock and is spawning (only for the moment). The rest of the time the males leave well enough alone and just live happily. I have male peacocks in a 240-liter with Australian rainbows and barbs. No problems. You do get a pecking order with these males as the dominate male will have the brightest colors and will spawn the females (something like Canada’s caribou). The second, third and so on males will wait their turn and behave themselves. This is why most people keep a harem of females with the spawning male so to keep the action more even, and one female doesn’t take all the attention. Of course there are exceptions to all fish just like humans. Every once in a while you get someone with a bad temper and thus the reputation.

On the other hand Haplochromis species from Lake Victoria are and can be meaner than junkyard dogs. They can tear up males and females overnight, but they are also some of the most colorful species that you can get outside of marine fish. There is nothing that compares when a male Haplochromis goes from his normal coloration to his vibrant spawning colors. Most of the Lake Victoria haps are usually kept in a species tank or with others who like to “rock-n-roll” so to speak. There are other Lake Victoria and Tanganyikan species who are much calmer and more community minded. For example, most Julidochromis species will only defend their small little territory while they are hatching their eggs, then they will protect and rear the young right in the community cichlid tank. I have a pair of Julidochromis marleri who regularly spawn and raise their young in a tank with Malawi peacocks and Pseudotropheus species with no difficulties.

Now those were African fish, and of course there are many more stories and examples, but these fish are not difficult to keep, breed, or raise, especially in Calgary water. Unfortunately the South American species are also in the cichlid family, but many of them do not exhibit the same behavior as their cousins from Africa. Many of them are tame and some are even timid in nature. One of these is the flag cichlid. This fish can be scared very easily so must be given lots of plants to hide in to feel comfortable in any tank. Species such as Herotilapia multispinosa (rainbow cichlid) are very good parents and do not trouble anyone at all. A lot of the dwarf cichlids are as calm and tame as any other normal community fish that we keep. In fact some of the tetras that most of us have can be rougher than most dwarf cichlids! Not all South American fish are quiet and docile. There are the big bruisers like the green or red terrors. Their names suit their temperaments well. Treat them like you do Africans. Most Cichlasoma species have various levels of temperament that are usually only triggered during spawning.

Cichlid breeding and keeping seems to evolve with the aquarist as he or she gets more experience and more inquisitive. It certainly is not as hair raising or frightening as some others like to say. I think some of these stories are invented by cichlid people to give them something to talk about (as I hardly ever see them giving programs at club meetings saying the opposite!!!). Cichlid tanks are certainly not as easy as general community fish tanks because they need require setups particular to their special areas or biotopes that they live in. However, I feel the rewards of cichlid tanks are greater than the average tetra, barb, angel, and guppy community tank.

Don’t believe half of what you hear about cichlids, take the rest with a grain of salt, so to speak. Not all cichlids are “Bullies of the Tank”, and not all cichlids have the same general behavior. Many of the cichlid species that we are starting to see at the club auctions have only recently been discovered and shipped across the world. One example are the recently found "rock kribs". These new fish are from Lake Victoria and are certainly a Haplochromis species. Yet they are so new that they have not been given a Latin name as of yet. There is a lot to be learned about fish that have recently been imported and found from areas in South America and Africa. Most of the info concerning feeding and breeding water conditions have not been discovered, or at the least published. So if you like a challenge or want to add to the information bank for others to read than I suggest you try cichlids and you might be surprised that many really are not the "Bullies of the Aquarium World" that so many think they are.