A little added filtration

PicturePhoto of a simple air driven sponge filter. From http://www.fishlore.com/.

If you have air stones or bubble walls in your tank, you can add a little more filtration to your water simply by replacing your air stone with a sponge filter.

Sponge filters are readily available at your LFS or online and they come in all shapes and sizes. You already have all the other components needed if you’re running an airstone (air pump, air line) and you’ll still get the bubble effect but you’ll be adding some biological filtration in the process.

​Even though my tanks are sufficiently filtered with canisters, I often keep small, DIY bottle filters running just to provide a little extra filtration and to provide some redundancy in the event a canister goes down. Though I power these bottle filters with small water pumps, air bubbles from air stones and air driven sponge filters provide another important function – they provide surface agitation, which promotes oxygen exchange. I get the same effect with the outflow of my small bottle filters.

If added filtration peaks your interest but you don’t won’t a sponge, you can take advantage of your already running airstone and create filtration by simply using a small (~16 oz), clean plastic bottle filled with some bio media of your choice and hooking the airline to it. They guys at the King of DYI have produced a nice how-to video for constructing one of these small, air-driven bottle filters.


Change that water!

Perhaps the single most impactful task you can perform as part of your tank maintenance routine is to change your tank water...and do it often. Hobbyist fish tanks are typically closed systems. The water might be circulated through filters but it's still the same water. No old water is removed and no new water enters. So why take out some water and replace it with fresh? Among other things, changing the water does the following:
  • Replaces trace minerals that evaporate or get used up
  • Promotes temporary oxygen exchange
  • Removes nitrates in the water that build up from fish waste
  • Dilutes measurable ammonia/nitrite in the water
  • Helps regulate pH balance

In addition, regular water changes can promote spawning behavior, especially in tough to breed species. Anecdotally, I’ve had pairs that seem to breed more frequently as the frequency of water changes increases.

If you visit online aquarium forums and boards, aquarists regular espouse water changes to solve all kinds of problems. There is a reason. Regular water changes will play as a large a role in maintaining a healthy tank as nearly anything else you can do.

How often should you change the water? How much water should you change? There are no single answers to those two question because there are many variables that factor in (tank size, tank filtration, tank inhabitants, source water). Performing water changes weekly is a good starting point. Changing a small volume (as a percentage of the total volume in the tank) will have little positive impact. Changing a large volume may have an enormous negative impact. Finding the right balance is where experience comes in. If you’re a new aquarist, begin with ~20% each week. Test your water several hours after each change and see what your parameters are. A cycled tank should register no ammonia or nitrites, but it may take trial and error with the change volume and frequency to get your nitrates down to acceptable levels. The important thing to remember is simply to perform water changes regularly.


Tank decorations

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Photo from Marta’s Pet Shop website – https://thecichlidstage.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/mps-images-fish-products-03-1.jpg

If you’re new to cichlid keeping, one subject you might be trying to learn more about is the appropriate tank decor for the species you keep. There is no shortage of information and advice available online. Plenty of folks have written about decorating a cichlid tank, and much of this consists of do’s and don’ts.

If you’re wanting to emulate a biotope specific to your fish (e.g., Lake Malawi), another natural environment, or provide the optimal aquascape for breeding particular species, then I encourage you to heed some of the information out there. However, if you don’t have any specific intentions other than to keep some cichlids for your own viewing pleasure or that of your friends and neighbors (i.e, a show tank), don’t obsess over the decorations.

For the most part, the choice of ornaments, rocks, plants, etc. that occupy the same tank space as your cichlids are important only to you. Clearly don’t put things in your tank that might affect the quality of the water. Otherwise, make it look how you want it to look.

With that out of the way, I would encourage you to include SOME decorations, substrate, etc. A completely bare show tank provides nothing for your fish and has the potential for adding stress. Cichlids, just like other fish, will instinctually seek shelter to avoid predators, threats, etc. A bare tank offers nowhere to hide other than behind whatever hardware you are using (e.g., filter tubes, sponge filters, heaters). Though my fish will typically congregate near the surface when I approach the tank to feed them, they will also often scatter and or display skittishness many times when I merely walk by. When this occurs, they’re rushing off for a safe place to hide. What comprises that place isn’t really important to them as long as it provides enough shelter to hide them from view.

Therefore, give them some places to go when they’re frightened or otherwise stressed. You can do this with submerged PVC components (tubing, connectors, etc.), ceramic decorations (pagodas and other ornaments), rocks, plants, and other things. Substrate choice isn’t as important except that bare glass is reflective, and reflections might have adverse effects on your fishs’ behavior.

I know some expert cichlid keepers who are a bit whimsical with their tank decorations, some who are minimalists, and others who are naturalists. Largely, your fish don’t care how you decorate their environment as long as your choices don’t introduce additional stress. It’s been proven that stressed fish will typically exhibit muted colors or otherwise won’t look their best.

Your role in losing fish

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Photo from http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/living-on-the-edge-may-help-cheat-extinction/?_r=0

Let’s face it. If you keep cichlids, you’re going to lose some. They WILL die. They will die for a variety of reasons.  However, even professional cichlid keepers lose fish. Sometimes cichlids are weak or sick when you get them, and you don’t know it. Sometimes they will kill each other because most species exhibit some level of aggression towards other cichlids. Sometimes they die of old age. Sometimes they will die and you won’t know why.

I HATE losing a fish for any reason, and it bothers me for days when I do. I take the hobby very seriously with respect to the health and longevity of the cichlids I keep. However, I also recognize the risks of loss and I accept those.

Your commitment, your patience, and your skill all play huge factors in both how often you lose them and how many. The point of this post: Always look at the death of your fish from the perspective of your contribution to it. In other words, always ask yourself, “In what way, if any, did I contribute to the death of that fish?” ​Being self reflective and answering that question will make you a better fish keeper.

Cichlid mate attraction

PictureImage from The Mascot Design Gallery – http://www.mascotdesigngallery.com/singing-fish-mascot/.

We already know that courtship rituals for male cichlids often consist of various physical displays and behavior. Add sounds to that mix. According to recent research conducted at Stanford University, male Astatotilapia burtoni utilize low frequency sounds as part of their mate attraction repertoire.

While the news article provides links to the lead researcher at Stanford and his lab, the article doesn’t link to the scholarly publication from which the news article was assembled. This is unfortunate and a problem that often hinders success of science communication.

A shout out to cichlidophile Brandon Sturgeon who posted a link to the Stanford article on the Cichlid Keepers Facebook group page.


Submersible heaters

Over the years, I’ve used various brands of submersible heaters – Eheim Ebo Jager, Hydor, Aqueon, Marina, and Fluval among others. This post isn’t a review nor does it contain any kind of personal heater ranking, however I want to express my overall satisfaction with a particular brand/model.I’ve grown quite fond of the Fluval Digital E series by Hagen. There are multiple reasons for my attraction to and satisfaction with this heater, which are listed below in no particular order.


  • The glass heater resides in a plastic guard, which offers significant protection against large, rowdy fish.

  • The heater has a built in LCD digital temperature display that is easy to read.

  • The temperature settings are in 1/2 degree increments, which will appear on the digital display.

  • The mechanism for changing/setting the temperature is a lever that only requires one hand to operate, unlike other heaters with a dial that, over time, requires two hands to adjust.

  • The temperature display can be set to centigrade (C) or fahrenheit (F).

  • The display utilizes colors to quickly identify temperature ranges - green (safe temp), red (high temp), blue (low temp).

Of course, the most important aspects of a submersible heater are its dependability and accuracy. I’ve owned four of the E series and, to date, I’ve only had a problem with one. Fortunately, it was faulty right out of the box.

The temperature adjustment lever is at the top of the heater, which makes adjusting the temperature really easy and, if you mount the heater vertically, the lever can protrude above the water line allowing you to make an adjustment and stay dry doing it. Also, the colored display allows you to quickly notice a problem with the temperature, especially in the dark.

A word of caution, however. Even though these heaters have been reliable for me, I believe in redundancy. For this reason, I keep separate thermometers on all my tanks and I would encourage you to do the same if you use this heater or any other with a built in temperature display.


Stripping mouthbrooders

This topic comes on the heels of a discussion I recently had about the morals and values of fish sellers. I won’t get into the genesis of that conversation, except to say that it made me think more broadly about my own opinions with respect to keeping and breeding fish.

Anyone who has bred African cichlids to raise fry for sell or trade has ultimately engaged in stripping females of fry or eggs. If you want to learn more about the practice, there are plenty of online articles and videos that describe/illustrate the practice. Though this article on stripping is quite dated, I think it does a nice job of discussing the practice from a broader view. Furthermore, it’s written by someone who’s qualified to discuss it – Pam Chin.

As for my own views, I’m not particularly fond of the practice unless there is some physical reason to do so to protect the female. I’m more of a purist when it comes to the hobby, which means I’m more inclined to let nature unfold as it may.

Recommended cichlid resource

When I first began keeping fish, there weren’t many resources available for cichlids keepers beyond monographs. Now with the Internet, a whole new world of information has been introduced to all fish keepers. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t visit a website looking for some general information about a cichlid species I’m interested in buying or one that I already have.

While I consider the African Cichlid Hub to be a great resource, it’s not just busting at the seams with information. However, I think it does have some very good and very thorough articles on subjects that any fishkeeper should understand.  Because I keep dwarf Africans, I have found the dwarf cichlid species list quite informative.

Breeding pairs of shell dwellers in community tanks

Because my show tanks are community tanks and because I will often house breeding pairs of some shell dwelling species in these tanks, it’s inevitable that some of the pairs will successfully breed. If I’m intent on raising fry, I will keep breeding cichlids in their own tank. Otherwise, I just let nature take its course, while being cognizant of aggression.

Something to keep in mind with this approach is that keeping breeding pairs in a community tank will invite breeding aggression – between the pair and conspecifics, and between the pair and any trespassers/predators. Therefore if you choose to go this route and keep your breeding pair in the community, you should take a few steps to minimize the aggression. Such as, you ask?

Let’s start with conspecifics. Mitigating aggression in this case is highly dependent on the gender and number of conspecifics. Males of many species simply won’t tolerate another male in the tank, especially if there is a female present and a pair has formed. Unless you’re knowledgeable about the breeding behaviors of the shellies you keep, you’re best bet is to simply don’t keep more than the pair of a given species in the community. It’s not worth the risk. Your best bet is to start your breeding with the pair in their own tank.

The trespasser/predator problem is a bit simpler to address. You already know that most cichlids are territorial. Turf defense often becomes more acute when eggs and fry are involved. To minimize aggression toward trespassers and to offer your potential fry a fighting chance (assuming you want the fry to survive to maturity and you don’t take the “let nature take it’s course” approach), make the defense of the space easier. There are many ways to do this but the easiest is to employ some simple military strategy – use the natural surroundings to bolster the defense. In the case of an aquarium, use the glass.

A breeding pair of shell dwellers that have set up camp in the center of a 90g aquarium have to defend from all sides plus from above. I like to use the corners of the tank so the glass protects from two sides. I simply move the shells to the corner. This potentially accomplishes several objectives – reduces the stress of the pair, reduces their protection efforts, confines the space for the fry, and maximizes space for the other fish to avoid the pair.

There are other strategies, but following these will make fish keeping more enjoyable for you and the fish.