Learn about the causes of cichlid aggression and methods for reducing it.
African cichlids are a favorite among aquarists due to their interesting behavior, relative ease of breeding for many species, and bright coloration. However, many cichlid aquariums end in disaster due to poor planning. Proper planning is required because many of the species native to the rift lakes of Africa are very aggressive. While this aggression can never be fully eliminated (and who would want to? – it is one of the things that make these fish so interesting), it can be reduced such that you do not come home one day to find half your tank wiped out.
The main methods used to reduce aggression include combining fish with similar size and temperament characteristics, combining fish with different coloration and patterns, appropriate feeding, combining fish that occupy different levels in the aquarium, providing enough horizontal space, providing adequate cover, sexing your cichlids, overstocking, and rearranging your aquarium.
Similar Size and Temperament
African cichlids can vary widely in their adult sizes. This is important to remember because most are sold as juveniles and they all look the same size at this stage in their lives. You need to do some research before you buy any species so you can make sure not to combine a species that will reach 10” with one that will reach 4”. If you do not do the research, the 4” fish will become a snack.
It is also important to ensure that the species are of similar temperaments. If you combine a highly aggressive species with a rather docile one, the aggressive one will make quick work of the other fish. However, if you combine two aggressive fish, they will both be able to fend for themselves and no one will end up being picked on.
Different Coloration and Patterns
In the wild, African cichlids tend to look at others within their own species as competitors. They will often leave other species alone while constantly harassing their own. Cichlids look at the color and patterns of other fish to see if they are the same species. For instance, if you have demasoni (a black and blue striped cichlid from Lake Malawi), it would generally be unwise to combine it with other blue fish or other vertically striped fish, especially when the other fish have these characteristics, but do not have the aggression of a demasoni.
There are thousands of cichlid species with a multitude of colorations and patterning so you should have no problem finding species that differ in these two areas.
One of the major reasons (besides mating) that cichlids are so territorial is due to food. If they find that food is scarce, they are more apt to be aggressive and guard their territory. If food is easy to find, their aggression is reduced somewhat. Now, this is not meant to endorse overfeeding. Instead, it is a reminder to stick to your daily schedule of 2-3 feedings with each occurrence lasting several minutes. Many people also consider it a good idea to fast their fish for a day every so often. Just be sure not to feed your fish sporadically or aggression in your tank could increase.
Occupying Different Levels in the Aquarium
While it is true that many African cichlids occupy the bottom of the aquarium, there are different species that live in alternate zones. In nature, there are fish that live along the rocky shores and there are ones that swim in the open waters. There are also ones that live on the sandy bottom. If you set your tank up to include each of these regions, you may find that the fish will not stake out the same territories. This will obviously reduce the amount of aggression in the tank.
Adequate Horizontal Space
If the cichlids you choose mostly occupy the bottom of the aquarium, horizontal space will be at a premium. For this reason, having a great deal of vertical space does little to reduce aggression. Instead, it is better to have a shorter tank that is long. The extra length will allow you to provide multiple caves along the bottom of the aquarium and each individual fish should have enough space to carve out his own area. If the fish are not forced to fight for prime real estate, they are less likely to be aggressive towards each other.
If you keep species that are native to a rocky biotope, it is important that you provide them with numerous rocky areas in the aquarium. This will serve two purposes. First, it will provide them with numerous caves so they will not have to fight over a few. Second, it will provide fish that are being harassed with cover so they can escape the dominant ones. It also simulates their natural habitat which they are sure to appreciate.
Sexing Your Cichlids
Many of the aggression issues are between males during mating times. Usually a dominant male will emerge in your tank and he will fiercely drive away any other male competition. Therefore, it is often a good idea to limit the number of males in your tank. This cannot be done for every species as sexing some cichlids is very difficult. Other species, however, are not that hard and in these instances, you should try to limit the male population. You generally want to provide each male with a small harem (mix 2-3 females per male). The male will chase the females relentlessly when he is ready to mate. If you have a 1:1 male to female ratio, the male will chase the one female until she dies. If he is forced to spread his chasing around, the females have a chance to rest before being chase again.
In general, cichlids should be overcrowded. Overcrowding helps to curb aggression by making it difficult for any particular fish to focus on another one. With so many cichlids in the tank, it is difficult for the dominant ones to single out individuals. This spreads the aggression out to many fish which means each individual fish is not too stressed.
However, you must be careful when overcrowding a tank. You will need extra filtration to handle the extra load and you will need to be very regular with your water changes.
In terms of what overcrowding means, let us look at an example. Suppose you have a 58 gallon aquarium. Now, typically you would want around 58” of fish if we are to go by the oversimplified rule of 1” of fish per gallon of water. If we stock it with fish that reach an adult size of 4” then we can expect to pick up around 14 fish. Now, say you pick up three or four more. Now you will have 68”-72” of fish. Notice that we did not add a huge amount over the recommended, but we did add a few more to pack the fish in the aquarium.
Rearranging Your Aquarium
It is a good idea to rearrange your tank every time you add a new cichlid species. If you do not do this, the established cichlids will already have their areas picked out and will fight the new fish that are unfamiliar with the territorial boundaries. By rearranging the rock work, each species – old and new – has an equal chance at securing a territory.
It is also not a bad idea to periodically rearrange the rock work even when no new species are being added. Some people do this every 2-3 months as it helps to break up any territorial strongholds and seems to reduce aggression to a certain degree.
It is also recommended that you introduce the least aggressive species first as you build up your tank to its full stocking.
Not all cichlids are the same and it is unfair to group them all into one behavioral group. However, the vast majority of the African cichlids are very aggressive and this article is meant to provide some tips on curbing this aggression. While it is important to research any fish you purchase, it is especially important to research any cichlids you are going to buy. As should have been clear from this article, picking the wrong species can be devastating to your aquarium.
For additional information, refer to the following web pages:
Wavemakers for Saltwater Tanks If you want to keep your saltwater tank healthy, you need to consider the ideal level of water flow. Installing a wavemaker in your tank will help you strike the right balance.
The fish you choose to stock your tank is not a decision that should be made lightly. The articles in this category will help you understand the basics of fish compatibility and will provide you with other information you need to make an informed decision when stocking your tank.
The Basics of Freshwater Fish Compatibility Whether you are new to the aquarium hobby or not, there are a few things you should know about freshwater fish compatibility. If you do not understand the basics, you may have trouble maintaining a healthy community tank environment.
Choosing the Right Barbs for Your Tank Barbs are incredibly popular among freshwater aquarium hobbyists and there are a number of species to choose from. Read more to decide which species is right for you!
Types of Freshwater Aquarium Snails When it comes to snails in the freshwater aquarium, not all of them are bad. Read more to learn the benefits of aquarium snails as well as what types to keep and what to avoid.
Algae Eaters for Freshwater Tanks Are you looking for an easy way to help control algae in your tank? Algae-eating species of fish are a great addition to the freshwater tank and can help keep unwanted algae under control.
Compatible Tank Mates for Freshwater Angels Angelfish are one of the most popular species of freshwater aquarium fish. If you plan to keep these fish, take the time to learn about what species can be kept with them.
Cultivating a Tank for Red Bellied Pacus The red bellied pacu is a unique and beautiful aquarium fish. If you hope to add these fish to your tank, take the time to learn how to properly care for them.
The Ideal Tank Setup for Oscars Oscars are a type of cichlid and they are a very amusing species of freshwater fish to keep in the home aquarium. If you plan to cultivate this species, take the time to learn the ideal tank setup.
Cichlids - Understanding the Different Types Have you ever considered adding a cichlid or two to your freshwater tank? If so, you would be wise to learn the basics about this diverse group of fishes before you decide to keep one.
How to Select the Best Location for Your Tank Before you even begin to set up your freshwater fish tank you need to decide where to put it. Where you place your tank will play a significant role in how much time you spend cleaning your tank and it may also impact your water quality.
What is a Biotope Tank? Take your skills to the next level by starting a biotope tank. A biotope tank is the perfect way to achieve a natural aquarium environment.
Safety Tips for Freshwater Aquariums Cultivating a freshwater aquarium can be an enjoyable experience but there are also a number of safety concerns to be aware of when keeping a fish tank.
When and How to Upgrade to a Larger Tank If you participate in the aquarium hobby for long enough, there may come a time when it becomes necessary to upgrade to a larger tank. Read more to learn about what factors contribute to the need for an upgrade as well as the proper procedures for doing so.
FAQs for Novice Freshwater Hobbyists As a beginner in the aquarium hobby you are likely to have many questions. Familiarize yourself with these FAQs before you begin and you will have a greater chance of success in cultivating your own freshwater tank.
Planted Aquariums An overview of the different styles of planted aquariums. Different types of plants you could use. Popular plants.
Fish to Avoid for Planted Freshwater Tanks Cultivating a freshwater planted tank is hard work and the last thing you want is to have all of that hard work destroyed by adding the wrong fish to your tank. To avoid this problem, do your research to determine which species to avoid when stocking a planted tank.
Types of Freshwater Aquarium Lighting Choosing the right lighting system for your freshwater tank is a very important decision. If you make the wrong choice your tank may not look its best and your live plants may fail to thrive.
Understanding the Lighting Spectrum The key to finding the perfect lighting for your freshwater aquarium is to understand the basics of the lighting spectrum. Read more to find out how spectrum is measured and what type is best for your tank.
Finding the Right Balance with Aquarium Lighting Installing the proper aquarium lighting system is essential in maintaining a thriving tank environment. This article will help you find the right balance in terms of watts, lumens and intensity.
How to Make Your Own Sponge Filter Sponge filters are a great option for hospital and fry tanks but they can also be used as a source of supplemental filtration for community tanks.
Common Problems with Tank Filters Having adequate filtration is the key to maintaining a healthy freshwater aquarium. But what do you do when your filter isn't working properly? Read more to find out.
Overview of Filter Media Types Proper filtration is the key to keeping your freshwater aquarium healthy. When it comes to filtration there are a variety of types of media to choose from so learn the basics before you make a decision.
How to Culture Infusoria for Baby Fish To raise baby fish successfully you will need to use the right food. Infusoria are the perfect size for newly hatched fry and they are easy to culture at home.
The Pros and Cons of Live Food for Fish The type of food you choose to feed your aquarium fish will have a major impact on their health. Learn the basics of live foods to discover how they can benefit your freshwater aquarium fish.
How to Interpret Fish Food Labels If you want to select a high-quality commercial food for your aquarium fish you should understand how to interpret a fish food label.
Constipation/Indigestion in Aquarium Fish You may not realize that your fish can suffer from constipation. Though this condition may not sound serious, it could actually have devastating consequences for your fish.
Improving Color in Aquarium Fish The best part of keeping a freshwater aquarium is watching your tank inhabitants thrive and grow. Read more to learn how to enhance and maintain healthy coloration in your fish.
What is Dropsy and How Do I Treat it? When cultivating an aquarium, you are likely to run into a variety of freshwater aquarium fish diseases and conditions including dropsy. Learn how to treat and prevent these diseases so you can better protect your fish.
How to Set Up A Hospital Tank No matter how careful you are, your fish are likely to get sick at some point during your time as an aquarium hobbyist. Having a hospital tank running is a great way to prevent an illness from becoming a crisis in your freshwater tank.
Addressing the Shimmies in Live Bearers Dealing with aquarium fish disease is a fact of life in the aquarium hobby. Take the time to learn about the shimmies, or livebearer disease, to protect your fish.
What to do About Aquarium Snail Infestations Though they may look harmless, one aquarium snail can quickly turn into dozens or even hundreds. If you are dealing with an aquarium snail infestation in your tank, try out some of these tips and begin taking the recommended precautions to prevent future infestations
How to Make Your Own Tank Divider There may come a time during your career as an aquarium hobbyist that you need to divide your tank. When this day comes, you may want to consider building your own tank divider.
Aquarium Water Test Kits The key to keeping your aquarium fish happy and healthy is to maintain high water quality. Unless you test your tank water on a regular basis, however, you won't know whether your water quality is high or not.
Selecting a Background for your Freshwater Tank The way you decorate your tank makes a big difference in its appearance. Not only do you need to think about the decor you use inside your tank, you should also consider the tank background.
Breeding and Rearing Live-bearing Species of Fish Live-bearing species of fish like guppies and swordtails are notorious for breeding in the community tank. If you want to breed these fish on purpose, however, there are a few tips you might want to know.
Breeding the Two Kinds of Betta Fish You may be aware that there are over 30 species of betta fish in existence but did you know that these species can be divided by their breeding habits? There are two types of betta fish -- bubble-nesters and mouth-brooders.