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Cichlids in the Planted Aquarium

Cichlids in the Planted Aquarium

By Tony Griffitts

When an aquarium hobbyist thinks of a planted aquarium they often think of a tank with tetras or livebearers.  Cichlids are often overlooked as a plant safe fish because of their overall reputation of rearranging the tank.  Their are many cichlids that are plant safe, and thrive in planted aquariums.  Here I will show case some great cichlids to consider for your planted aquarium.

Some of the larger cichlids like Discus (Symphysodon sp.), Festivum (Mesonauta festivus and M. insignis) and Angelfish (Pterophyllum sp.) are great center pieces for the planted aquarium.

Wild Blue Discus (Symphysodon aequifasciatus haraldi)Silver Angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare)

Wild Blue Discus (Symphysodon aequifasciatus haraldi) (left), Silver Angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare) (right).

They are primarily mid-water swimmers.  Discus are often kept with tetras as small as Cardinals (Paracheirodon axelrodi).  Discus do require higher temperatures 82° to 86° F (28° to 30° C).  My experience with plants at these higher temperatures is very good, they actually seem to thrive.  I have had better experience at keeping aquatic plants at these high temperatures than when they were kept at lower temperatures.  Angelfish and Festivum come from the same native waters of the Amazon as Discus and do like to be kept at these higher temperatures.  Angelfish and Festivum can be kept with tetras, but avoid smaller tetras like Cardinals and Neons (Paracheirodon innesi), as these small tetras often become pray for these adult fish.  Discus, Angelfish, and Festivum will often spawn on broad leaf plants like Amazon Swords (Echinodorus sp.) and Anubias sp.  The minimum aquarium size you should consider for these fish is 20 gallons (80 l).  These fish do well in 5.0 to 7.8 pH, but for breeding a soft acidic water is best.

South American "Dwarf Cichlids" (less than 4 inches or 10 cm) like Apistogramma sp., Blue Ram (Microgeophagus ramirezi), Nannacara sp., Bolivian Ram (Microgeophagus altispinosa), Dwarf Flag Cichlid (Laetacara curviceps), Red-breasted Flag Cichlid (Laetacara dorsigera), Checkerboard Cichlid (Dicrossus maculatus) are all very good cichlids with plants. 

"Red Fin" Apistogramma agassiziiFemale Apistogramma agassiziiApistogramma bitaeniataApistogramma borelliApistogramma cacatuoidesApistogramma panduriniBolivian Ram (Microgeophagus altispinosa)Female Blue Ram (Microgeophagus ramirezi)

Top row, left to right, male Apistogramma agassizii, female Apistogramma agassizii, Apistogramma bitaeniata, and Apistogramma borelli.

Bottom row, left to right, Apistogramma cacatuoides, female Apistogramma pandurini, Bolivian Ram (Microgeophagus altispinosa), female Blue Ram (Microgeophagus ramirezi).

All South American dwarf cichlids stay near the bottom of the tank.  Apistogrammas like to spawn in caves.  I like to give them a ½ coconut shell with a hole drilled in the side.  Blue Rams and Bolivian Rams normally dig a shallow pit and lay their eggs at the bottom of the pit, but sometimes they will lay their eggs on driftwood or a rock.  Many Apistogramma species are harem spawners.  One male will spawn with several females.  The females will often take care of the eggs and fry on her own, and will often chase the male away.  All of these dwarf cichlids are normally safe with most tetras and only show aggression when defending a spawning site.  All of these dwarf cichlids can be kept in a 10 gallon (40 l) aquarium. These fish also do well in 5.0 to 7.8 pH, but for breeding a soft acidic water is best.

West African Dwarf Cichlids, like Kribensis (Pelvicachromis pulcher), Transvestitus (Nanochromis transvestitus, Nudiceps (Nanochromis nudiceps), and Taeniatus (Pelvicachromis taeniatus) are all examples of cichlids that do well with plants.

Female Kribensis (Pelvicachromis pulcher)Albino female Kribensis (Pelvicachromis pulcher)Transvestitus (Nanochromis transvestitus)Taeniatus (Pelvicachromis taeniatus)

Left to right, female Kribensis (Pelvicachromis pulcher), albino female Kribensis, Transvestitus (Nanochromis transvestitus), Taeniatus (Pelvicachromis taeniatus).

These fish are cave spawners like South America's Apistogramma species and stay near the bottom of the tank.  They do well with most tetras and are normally only aggressive around a spawning site.  The Kribensis is the most common of the West African dwarf cichlids and is available in an albino form.  Some of the less common West African species will cost around $35 to $70 a pair.  All of these fish will readily spawn in a planted aquarium.  Some of these fish can tolerate very acidic water as in the case of Transvestitus, their natural water has been reported to be as low as 4.0 pH.  These fish can also be kept at a higher pH 7.0 to 7.8 with out any problem.  If kept in pairs most West African dwarf cichlids can be kept in as small as a 10 gallon (40 l) aquarium, but I do recommend a little larger to be on the safe side, as they tend to be a little more aggressive than their South American cousins.

How many dwarf cichlids you can add to an aquarium depends on the surface area.  I recommend only one pair per one square foot of surface area.  So a standard US 20 gallon aquarium (24"x12"x16" or 60x30x40cm) can in most cases hold two pairs of dwarf cichlids.  Cichlids all have individual personalities, and what may work for you once, may not work with different fish.  Many cichlids of the same species can be very peaceful while a minority can be bullies.  In most cases dwarf cichlids will not cause harm to other fish in the aquarium.

All of these fish will do good on frozen brine shrimp, blood worms and mysis shrimp.  Live California Blackworms are relished, and are an excellent conditioning food for spawning.  I have raised many dwarf cichlids on my own beef heart formula, and it is my preferred food for raising fish.  I do not recommend dry flake or pellet foods as a staple as these foods are normally not very high in digestible protein.

For those of you that already have a planted aquarium without cichlids, you are missing out on some fascinating behavior that makes cichlids such popular fish with many aquarium hobbyist.  All of these cichlids for the most part will leave other fish species in the aquarium alone.  They will fight for territory among their own or closely related species.  In my opinion, a planted community tank without cichlids is like a garden without pond (just not complete).

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