Why dwarves?

The myriad cichlid species available in the hobby offer something for every cichlidophile. If you like the great big nasties, they’re available. If you like the hand-sized fish, there are plenty to be had. If you’re looking for something small, there’s lots to choose from. So why am I partial to dwarves? Here are my top five reasons in no particular order.

1) They don’t require large tanks – Large tanks take up more space, they cost more to purchase, and they take more effort to maintain. It takes longer to change 20% of the water and vacuum the substrate of a 75 gallon tank than a 20 gallon.

2) They won’t eat your other fish – Large fish generally eat small fish. Cichlids that aren’t strictly herbivores will eat any fish they can fit in their mouths. Dwarf cichlids are typically too small to eat anything other than the fry of fish.

3) You can keep more of them – Defending a smaller territory means you can sometimes keep multiple specimens of various genders together (i.e., multiple breeding pairs) in the same tank.

4) As much personality as their larger cousins – Don’t be fooled by their size! The little guys have just as much spunk as the big guys. The can be just as aggressive towards conspecifics and other species.

5) They eat less – A smaller fish doesn’t require as much food as a larger fish.

New Tanganyika cichlid book


Image from Cichlid Press.
Acclaimed biologist, cichlid expert, and author Ad Konings has released the 3rd edition of his book on Tanganyika cichlids. It’s been a decade since the 2nd edition was published. Supposedly lots of pictures, but I’ve read that the book is printed on matte paper. I’ve even heard one report that the photos aren’t even in color. That’s hard to believe but I haven’t seen a copy yet to verify that. Amazon has it and you can also order it directly from the publisher, Cichlid Press. Reviews on Amazon as of today are mixed with the biggest complaint being the use of matte paper, which obviously diminishes any color photos.

Fish Forums

As I briefly touched on in an earlier post, there are many resources for information about cichlids. However, there is no substitute for acquiring information directly from someone who has experience, and fish forums provide that opportunity. There are some great online aquarium forums out there. I have to admit, when I first began my foray into fish keeping, I spent hours on various forums soaking up all the information I could. I even signed up and engaged by asking numerous questions. Eventually, I was invited to become a moderator on a forum because I advanced from asking questions to answering them, which was a great experience. This all proved incredibly invaluable to my personal fish keeping knowledge base. Having said that, let me offer up two online forums that I highly recommend – one is cichlid specific and one isn’t. There are others, and I encourage you to find a forum that you like and trust, and engage. It can be a rewarding experience in many ways.

Starter fish

What are good fish to begin your journey into the world of cichlids? Good question. Fortunately, there are many options. Since I’m a dwarf cichlid fan, I’ll list a few good species of dwarves that make good starter fish. One aspect of keeping dwarfs, especially for beginners, is that they don’t require large tanks. This also means you don’t need larger heaters, filters, etc., which reduces your financial investment. However, if you expect to pay less for dwarves because they’re small, you’re going to be disappointed. Many dwarf species are move expensive than their larger brethren. These listed below are typically reasonably priced and, except for maybe the N. multifasciatus, should be pretty easy to find. Optimal water and tank requirements differ a bit for these, but all of them will generally do well in most municipal water. To get detailed information about them, you’re just a Google search away.
Cleithracara maronii (Keyhole cichlid) - This is a very peaceful little fish that gets along with its own species and other tank mates. At maturity, they'll reach about 4" in size. Photo is from The ZT2 Roundtable.
Laetacara curviceps - Like the Keyhole cichlid above, another peaceful cichlid from South America that will max out around 4". Photo is from Aquarioo.com.
Neolamprologus multifasciatus - These little guys are endemic to Lake Tanganyika in Africa (one of the rift lakes) and are often referred to as "multis". They're shell dwelling cichlids, so they're also part of the "shellies" group. They are quite small at maturity, ~2". Photo is from Plantedtank.net.
Pelvicachromis pulcher (Kribensis) - Kribs are very colorful cichlids from West Africa and generally won't exceed 5". Photo is from Seriouslyfish.com.

Do it yourself


Photo by the author.


 Photo by the author.

Nearly any product or accessory you need as an aquarist can be purchased. Sometimes, however, that product isn’t exactly what you want. This is a good thing for those do-it-yourselfers out there. I wouldn’t want to begin calculating the amount of money I’ve spent in this hobby over the years, especially on items I wanted to customize that I couldn’t. For this reason, I’ve spent lots of time learning how to make certain components. Youtube is a great place to find how-to videos for do-it-yourself projects. In fact, I’ve made a couple of internal filters following instructions I’ve found on Youtube, including the one in the photos above. I deviated from the actual how-to video quite a bit, but the concept is the same.

This is a simple internal filter made with a food-grade plastic squeeze bottle. The PVC tube is a spray bar for the pump outtake. For media, I used some bio plastic (lower two thirds of bottle) and  pond sponge that I cut to fit (top third of bottle). Everything in the photos was purchased locally except the bottle itself, which I ordered online (a pack of 6). What you can’t see is the hole in the bottom of the bottle where I attach it to the small water pump intake. The spray bar is then attached to the pump outtake. Water flows into the bottle through the holes cut into the lid. I’ve found this filter works great for quickly clearing up a tank that I’ve done significant work in or a tank I’ve wanted to clear of chemical treatment (medicine, etc.) I may have used for something. I put this in my tank and turn my primary filter off, which is great when your primary is a canister or something that would take extra time to unhook and swap out charcoal or other chemical filter media you might be using.

Online retail – If you must

In an earlier post, I advocated for patronizing your local stores when purchasing aquarium products. However, sometimes ordering online is a better option. To that end, I thought I would list a few of the sites that I’ve ordered from or sites that hobbyists I know support. These are general supply sites, which means they carry a wide-range of aquarium products. There are certainly other sites, including many that are quite component specific (e.g., tanks, tank lighting, filters), so this isn’t a comprehensive list.

Amazon – Surprisingly, Amazon’s inventory is pretty rich in aquarium products.
Aquarium Connection – As the name suggests, this site is specific to aquarium products, though it also sells pond products. Very comprehensive, including articles and product reviews.
Big Al’s – A general pet site, but I have used it many times. Have always received great service from them.
Drs. Foster and Smith– A general pet site like Big Al’s with a comprehensive aquarium inventory.
Jehmco – Not as large a site as the others above, but sells quality stuff.



 Photo by the author.


Photo by the author.  

Many cichlids are primarily bottom dwellers, venturing up into the water column on rare occasions. This increases the potential for stirring up detritus and other elements that collect on the substrate. Aquarists who maintain tanks with driftwood and/or live plants know all too well how quickly solid matter can accumulate. Regular substrate vacuuming when performing water changes will reduce the amount of detritus available to get stirred up. Since I primarily keep dwarf cichlids, I generally don’t have a problem with waste and other organic material getting kicked up into the water column, where the filter intakes are most likely to draw it in. However, I still prefilter all of my filters.

What is prefiltering? Basically, it’s a type of mechanical filtration that precedes the regular filter media. Most filters utilize an intake tube strainer on the end of the intake that primarily blocks the larger pieces of debris from reaching the filter media. By prefiltering, you can stop all but the finest particulate matter, regardless of the type of filter you employ (HOB, canister, internal, sump). Consequently, this can reduce the frequency of cleaning your primary filter, prevent items from clogging up the primary filter, and add more surface area for biological filtration.

The simplest and most cost efficient method of prefiltering is to use a proper fitting sponge over the intake. The only real drawback is the potential reduction in water flow to the primary filter, but I’ve found this is only a problem with higher flow filters when using prefilter sponges that are especially dense. Above are some photos of various sponges I use. You can pick these up at your local aquarium store or even order online.

For the cichlid beginner

So you’ve been keeping fish for a while and want to try your hand at cichlids but you’re not sure what to get? No worries. You can always Google something like “beginner cichlids” or similar. First, however, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with this exciting family of fish. There is myriad information about cichlids in books, trade publications, websites, etc. However, If you’re a beginner and would welcome some advice, read on.

Tank sizes: Small tanks should only be used for small cichlids. Many species of cichlids get quite large, ~7″ plus. Don’t purchase juvenile cichlids that will reach 6-7″ at maturity if your tank is 10 gallons. That’s cruel not to mention irresponsible. My rule of thumb is 15-20 gallons of water per 1″ of fish, at maturity. Thus a full grown fish of 7″ should have, at minimum, 105-140 gallons of water. That rule doesn’t entirely scale, but I think it’s a responsible way to plan, especially for a beginner. Nothing is more disheartening than seeing a full grown Oscar languishing in a 20-30 gallon tank, though many irresponsible hobbyists do it. Also consider how many cichlids you intend to house in a single tank. You can often keep multiple cichlids of the same size in a single tank. 

In addition, be cognizant of tank dimensions and the species you’re keeping. Go with a larger tank footprint, when possible. Footprint = length x width. For example, a 33g long tank has the same footprint as a 55 g tank. Many cichlids will spend the vast majority of their time around the bottom of the tank, so the extra volume of a tank with a greater height might be more aesthetically pleasing than practical. 

Water parameters: Not all cichlids (large or small) are suitable for any water. In other words, not all water is equal. Tap water in Boise, ID isn’t the same tap water as Atlanta, GA. The liquid environment in which fish live is as varied as land and temperature is for mammals. Wolverines don’t naturally thrive in Arizona. Very few cichlids are native to the US. In fact, most are endemic to Africa and South/Central America, and many species will only thrive within specific water parameters. But don’t fret about this. There are many beginner cichlids that will do well in most municipal water. Also, many cichlids available in the hobby are domestically bred, where generation breeding may reduce the dependency on native water parameters or at least create a wider tolerance range.

Aggression: Almost all cichlids are aggressive, especially toward conspecifics (their own species). This aggression can be mitigated in several ways, not the least of which is providing them with plenty of space. Most cichlids are territorial, meaning they set-up shop in a pretty defined space that they call their own in which trespassers are treated unkindly. Some of the smaller species don’t enforce a large territory, which means more than one can co-exist in a reasonably small tank. You’ve probably seen some tanks in restaurants and stores that are teaming with cichlids. Housing a large number of these fish in a single tank limits territory claims and distributes aggression, which often prevents a single fish from getting bullied. There are other mitigating solutions, but we’ll save those for another day.

Hopefully, this information is useful and will aid your decision making as you enter the fabulous world of cichlids!


Local support

Your support of the aquarium hobby comes in many flavors, not just financial. However, as you prepare to purchase the items you need, whether livestock or supplies, please consider patronizing your local aquarium store. Purchasing from brick and mortar stores provides local jobs, local taxes, and a place for you to personally engage with fellow hobbyists and ask questions. Obviously, not everyone lives within driving distance of an aquarium or supply house. For this reason, among others, online retail has its place, and I utilize it myself. However, when I need something I think first about supporting local establishments, places where I’ve received valuable advice and made many friends. So I encourage you to do the same when you can.