If you've wanted dramatic, colorful fish swimming around a large aquarium but the maintenance and cost of a saltwater setup intimidates you, consider African cichlids. These fish are more tolerant of varying water conditions than saltwater fish and are easy to keep by novice and intermediate-level aquarists. African cichlids are aggressive, but you can promote a more peaceful tank.
Room to Roam
Consider whether your tank adequately provides your fish plenty of room to swim back and forth when they reach maximum size. A 6-foot-long tank that's 2 feet high and 2 feet wide holds 180 gallons -- that's enough for a maximum of 360 total inches of adult cichlids. Fish with inadequate room to swim or with other stressful tank conditions will display more aggressive behavior.
Inadequate or improper tank decor might be the source of aggressive behavior. African cichlids most commonly available in the fish trade are mbuna who live among the rocks of Lake Malawi. Including plenty of rock features in their biotope offers hiding spots for cichlids to rest and greatly reduces aggression. African cichlids uproot and destroy plants, so use securely anchored plastic plants should you choose to include a few among the rock features. African cichlids having only plants or too few rock structures will stress and become aggressive toward tank mates.
When cichlids mature at different sizes, larger fish tend to become aggressive toward the smaller ones. Try to populate your tank with similar-size fish. You should have a minimum of six of each species to prevent an oddball fish from becoming the target of a bully. Cichlids become less aggressive when densely populated, and increasing your fish-to-water ratio from 1 inch of fish per gallon to 1.5 or even 2 inches of fish per gallon will result in a more peaceful environment. Use filtration adequate for twice the size of your tank to keep water fresh.
A Place of Her Own
Breeding pairs become quite defensive of the nesting site. Before mating, a male cichlid digs a brooding pit, where he entices a female to fertilize her eggs. After fertilization, both parents stay close to the brooding pit, defending it aggressively to keep other fish getting near it. You'll reduce aggression by removing the pair to a mating tank at the first sign of the male preparing a pit. Dad can easily be returned to the main tank after the pair finishes mating, leaving mom to care for the eggs and hatchlings.
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