Got several cichlids that are skittish or that are reluctant to come out in the open except to eat? Fear not. Many species are known to be notoriously shy, and being confined to a small space surrounded by an invisible barrier (glass walls) can produce myriad behavioral changes.
Fish react to the behavior of other fish, and those swimming naturally out in the open are often a sign that “the coast is clear” from predators, which can de-stress trepid tankmates. The same works with cichlids. Next time you’re at your LFS, pick up some non-cichlid, open water species and watch your trepid cichlids become more visible. These open water fish become what are called dithers for your cichlids. They may also make a nice addition to your tank.
I like to provide multiple species of dither fish, especially species that behaviorally complement each other. One of my favorites is black skirt tetras (pictured above). They are peaceful, hardy, and reasonably long lived for a tetra. They are also deliberate swimmers, meaning they don’t just swim constantly from one end of the tank to the other. They are schooling fish thus purchasing 5-6 or more is ideal.Another favorite, because they complement the behavior of black skirts, are giant danios. These are also a schooling species and are quite fast swimmers. Unlike the black skirts, giant danios are in constant motion. I’m also fond of Buenos Aires tetras – regular and albino varieties (pictured below). These are a little less active than the danios but more deliberate than the black skirts. Note the Buenos Aires at the top in the photo below. Yes, it’s missing part of its tail. Fear not. It will grow back. However, if you experience this with your own fish and your water isn’t pristine, you invite some nasty things for the fish (e.g., fungus, infection).
Yes, I recognize that the three species of dithers I list above are not endemic to the rift lakes and thus may be perceived as incompatible with the harder water of the rift lakes. I find the latter not to be true at all.