Plants in the aquarium

Having had many fish tanks in the past with live plants, I have to say there is something magical about them. They help create an authentic aquarium biotope. A heavily planted aquarium full of a variety of beautiful fish is quite a spectacle. However, live plants have always presented problems for me.

Just like an aquarist needs to be committed to maintaining a healthy environment for his/her fish, the same can be said for maintaining a thriving planted tank. I guess my commitment hasn’t been strong enough because I can never keep plants alive for long periods of time. Except for a single anubias that I bought nearly a decade ago, which is still alive and growing, nothing else has survived longer than a few months. I suppose having a green thumb doesn’t apply exclusively to successfully growing terrestrial plants.  

In my opinion, heavily planted tanks like the one in the photo above are not easy, and I applaud those who maintain them. I’m convinced that there are too many components required to do this well – correct lighting, fertilizer, CO2, appropriate water parameters, etc. I’m also convinced every plant I’ve ever purchased came with an unseen bonus gift – snails. Trumpet snails are a nightmare. All things considered, I think I’ll stick with either no plants or a few artificial plants for color, decoration, shelter, etc. 

Having a conscience

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Image from www.sodahead.com.

I was on social media today and came across an interesting thread. A fellow aquarist recently acquired a tank that is 24″ x 24″ x 24″, which holds roughly 60 US gallons of water. He asked the following of his fish keeping peers: “Would this be big enough to house a single large cichlid?”

My first thought was, how is he defining “large cichlid”? My second thought was, why would he even consider housing a cichlid in a tank that only has two feet of swimming space glass-to-glass?

Every hobby has novices who deserve the opportunity to learn. However, at some point, common sense has to be a guide. Furthermore, a conscience needs to also be part of the equation.

Tank options declining

So I’ve been thinking about replacing one of my existing tanks. My 55g, which has been running continuously since 2000, is due to be replaced. Two of the larger aquarium brands, Aqueon and Marineland, offer a pretty comprehensive selection of tank configurations for retail. However, the industry is moving away from aquariums with oak color trim. Higher end and custom built glass tanks come in a wide array of wood grained trims, including oak and cherry, but most of the retail offerings are exclusively black trimmed.

Because I have a nice oak stand with the 55g footprint (48.3″ x 12.8″), I actually have several tank size options. Stock aquariums with the same footprint as the 55g include the 33g long and 40g long, so there are options. However, oak trimmed varieties are difficult to come by from my local aquarium store. I don’t want to put a black tank on an oak stand and the existing stand is too nice to paint. Fortunately, my local shop found a supplier that still had one 55g in oak remaining.

I bought it.

Rockwork, caves, and shelter

Mimicking the biotope of mbuna cichlids in aquariums requires the use of natural, artificial rocks, some type of water safe objects, or a combination thereof arranged in such a way that they create caves, crevices, etc. Lots of objects are available to hobbyists to accomplish this. For example, PVC pipe and connectors as well as ceramic pots and other ceramic structures are readily available and are often used to create shelter most mbuna instinctually gravitate to.

I have used all of the aforementioned. In fact, I just recently purchased some terra cotta pots for a new dwarf mbuna tank. Though I have used clay pots before, I haven’t ever systematically attempted to create individuals caves with them by breaking the edges to create side holes when the pots are upside down. There are many ways to do this and you can search Youtube for videos of various methods. I discovered it’s quite easy using nothing but a ballpeen hammer, and you can get reasonably precise with it. See the image below. The Dremel was for sanding down the rough edges. You could also use 100 or 80 grit sand paper. However, I find using a micro sander like the sand drum of a Dremel to be much easier and efficient. Unglazed terra cotta is quite soft, so it doesn’t take much effort to sand smooth.

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Photo courtesy of the author – Scott Wells.
I accomplished the same basic result that Alexis Elwood did with her pots, which is where I got the idea from. The great thing about creating these artificial caves is that your imagination is the limit, for the most part. Whatever looks good to you, whatever works, and whatever isn’t detrimental to your water quality or your fishes’ health are all that matter.

Ralph Cabage interview

PicturePhoto from ralphcabage.com.

When I started this blog, I intended it to be informative to both the novice and expert aquarist. However, I didn’t want the information found here to come from me exclusively. To that end, I planned to interview various cichlid and aquarium experts that I know. Here’s the first.

Let me introduce Ralph Cabage. Ralph is founder and owner of Aquarium Life Support Systems. He is a well-respected businessman in the aquarium industry and is an expert on both fresh and saltwater aquariums as well as freshwater ponds.

The Cichlid Stage: How long have you been involved in the aquarium industry?

40 years

TCS: What impelled you to get started?

My father, who took me to aquarium stores when I was a child.

TCS: What is Aquarium Life Support Systems?

Founded in 1986 as a manufacturer of filtration systems, ALSS has become a national distributor. Over the years, we have added many great product lines to what we sell, including the AquaLife brand as well as brands like Sicce, Kessil, etc.

TCS: If you could give beginning aquarists three pieces of advice as they enter the hobby, what would they be?

I’m going to give you four.

1) Go slow

2) Spend more on filtration and always go larger than what any manufacturer states on the package.  Trickle filters are still ten times better than any filter for freshwater.

3) Variety in the fish diet is crucial. Do not feed only one type of food. A balance between frozen, pellet, flake and freeze-dried is best but leave out live food. Not all food types are created equal. Resist the urge to buy your fish food from mass retailers. Your fish will live but they won’t thrive, just like you short-change your dog or cat when you buy them the mass produced foods only sold at the big chains. 

4) Do not depend on the Internet for accurate information.

TCS: What should every aquarist know about filtration?

I mentioned one thing above. Trickle filters are best for fresh water.

Live Plants help any type of system. 

Aeration is often overlooked when someone uses canister filters – always add an air pump when using this type of filtration unless you are doing an aquascaped planted tank. Also consider creating current in the water using a powerhead or pump such as the Sicce Voyager Nano.  It helps keep debris moving, which facilitates its removal by the filter.

TCS: What do you consider some of the biggest misconceptions about the hobby?

That it is growing.  I see the hobby caught between a generation of people who enjoy understanding biology/nature and a generation that prefers to live in a fantasy world of games instead of experiencing nature directly.

TCS: What can all aquarists do to best contribute to the conservation of aquarium fishes?

Just get involved and get others involved. We need a new, younger generation of aquarium keepers.

TCS: What’s your favorite species of aquarium fish, fresh and salt? Why?

That is a hard one. For saltwater, it would be an Imperator Angel.  I had one for 8 years that would grind his jaw, making a noise when he wanted food or attention.

For freshwater, I enjoy any of the Corydora species.  Something about them makes me calm.  I can see myself swimming around the bottom, in and out of things. Perhaps I am a bottom feeder. LOL.

Cichlid aggression

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Photo courtesy of the author.

Aggression in fish, as in many other creatures, has many determinants. These may be environmental,  biological, and/or social in nature. The Cichlidae family of fish, as a rule, readily display aggression in their natural habitat. This doesn’t change in aquaria and is, in fact, exacerbated. If you’re interested in learning the science behind cichlid aggression, there are plenty of scholarly papers on the subject, most of which are experiments conducted on aquarium fish.

Too many novice cichlid keepers have learned the hard way that cichlids can be brutal tank mates. Fish that look and act fine one minute can be beaten to death in less than an hour. Sadly, some irresponsible aquarists find cichlid aggression enjoyable, and hobby forums are rife with individuals who ask silly questions about which species is the toughest, etc.

IMO, two of the most effective ways to mitigate aggression (besides keeping a single specimen or none at all) are to keep very few cichlids in a very large tank or to keep a large population of different species in a modest-sized tank. The advantage of the former is space/distance and the advantage of the latter is redundancy. Giving cichlids plenty of room to either avoid tank mates or not interfere with a territory is usually effective. On the other hand, keeping many specimens in one tank distributes aggression and often prevents one fish from bearing the brunt or prevents any from staking out a territory.

There are other more subtle strategies to minimize aggression in your tank so I encourage you to become informed about these various methods before unnecessarily creating a behaviorally toxic environment for your fish.

Aquarium pumps

When I started this blog, I intended to occasionally trumpet the equipment that I use, including the brands I’m loyal to. So I’m going to start with pumps. I use Sicce pumps for a variety of purposes and I believe they are some of the best in the industry, especially at the hobbyist level. They are quiet and transfer a minimal amount of heat. Manufactured in Italy, Sicce offers what I think is one of the best values in aquarium pumps. Give them a shot when your next need for a pump arises. If your local fish store doesn’t carry Sicce, ask them to.

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

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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.