Cichlid enrichment

Acrylic bowl with sand and muffin snail shell. Photo by the author.

Permit me to anthropomorphize with this post. So, I don’t necessarily believe in animal “happiness” and other emotions, as we (humans) define them. However, I do believe that animals can reach a state of contentedness, just as they can a state of excitement.

So how do we influence such emotional or behavioral states? Providing enrichment to zoo animals has proven to be a successful animal management practice for captives creatures. Such enrichment comes in multiple flavors in zoos – mixing occupants in an exhibit, changing the exhibit, adding new things to the exhibit, etc.

Home aquariums are like micro zoos. And just like a regular zoo keeper, you, the aquarist, are responsible for the occupants of your tanks. You have to feed them, care for them if they’re ill, and basically manage their environment. 

So how can you enrich that environment? One simple way is to add new objects. Cichlids are inquisitive fish. They also often like to play, or at least behave in ways that we define as play. See my post about play from 2017. 

I have several 20g long tanks, which I use for segregation, fry grow out, sick fish, etc.  An occupant of one of these tanks is a single Telmatochromis sp. “temporalis shell”. Because I don’t use any kind of substrate in these tanks, adding shells to them can be tricky. If the shells can’t be anchored in some fashion, they move too easily if any of the tank occupants are shell dwellers that try to use them.

For the lone telmat that I have in one of the 20s, I decided to try something a little different because, well, I felt sorry for it being alone. I have some round, acrylic “bowls” that were not being used, so I decided to fill one with sand and put a muffin snail shell on the sand (see the photo at the top). Within minutes, the telmat was swimming around the bowl checking it out. Within 24 hours, the little fish had moved about 10% of the sand out of the bowl and took up residence inside the shell. As you can see in the photo, he’s now removed about 40% of the sand from the bowl. 

Ultimately, I accomplishments two things with this change in the telmat’s environment, albeit both temporary. One, I added something new to the tank, which gave the fish something to explore. Second, by adding sand, I gave the fish the opportunity to engage in an activity that it couldn’t before – moving sand. 

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