Good Habitat in the Dwarf Cichlid Aquarium
habitats of dwarf cichlids
vary widely and many aquarists try to duplicate natural habitats in
their tanks. This is a great practice and I have had great
success when trying to reproduce natural habitats. However, I
believe that most dwarfs are highly adaptable and will thrive in many
different types of environments as long as they are complex
environments. By this I mean they must have a a lot of nooks,
crannies and places to hide and spread out in. Complex
can be developed int he aquarium in a number of different ways which
will be discussed below.
Before we talk
about the things we put in the tank lets talk about a few environmental
basics. Temperature is one of the most important.
dwarfs do well in a range of water conditions, however temps of 74° -
78° F are ideal. Fish will normally do just fine in
a few degrees warmer or colder, but, research has shown that when
breeding and raising fry temps of 76° F result in the most balanced sex
ratios. Light is also important. Most dwarfs come
water that are deeply shaded all day long and receive little
direct sunlight. Additionally, many of the fish that come
blackwater and whitewater environments receive light that is filtered
by the water. All this means that in their natural habitats
dwarfs live in subdued light. In the aquarium they will
be more comfortable and colorful in tanks with fairly low light.
I use full spectrum fluorescent lamps only and vary the watts
gallon depending on the plants in the tank. Although, in
I rarely use more than 1 - 1 1/2 watts of light per gallon of water.
One thing that helps reduce
brightness is the use
dark substrate. Sand, gravel, formulated substrates and bare
bottoms are all used to successfully keep dwarfs and most hobbyists
will argue in favor of the method they use. I do a little of
several things but almost never do I use bare bottom tanks. I
have used them successfully to spawn and raise fish but they are too
stark for my personal preference. For many years I used only
small grained gravel that I collected from a variety of sources.
I have always had good luck with this and continue to use
type of gravel in most of my tanks. I spread the
an even layer that varies from as little as a quarter inch to several
inches in depth. This type of gravel is generally small
be moved by the fish and provides a firm base layer in the tank.
It is a good substrate for rooted plants and is easy to
habitat shows how plants, rocks and caves can be combined to create a
complex habitat. Note the female Apistogramma cacatuoides in
right. She is in front of a cave and in a clearing that is
from view from the rest of the tank as the large mass of java Moss
creates a solid wall between sections of the tank. On the
male Ram is above a flat rock that the Ram pair used repeatedly for
spawning. At times I had both the cacatuoides and Rams with fry at
Each species had a very defined territory that suited its
particular needs and the only serious squabbles were over the exact
placement of the dividing line. However, most commonly, the
cacatuoides would rarely venture farther than the edge of the java moss
past few years I have
become a big fan of using sand as a substrate. In nature most
dwarfs are in waters that have either a mud or sand bottom and many
will happily spend their time sifting through the sand in search of a
morsel. Sand is easy to clean and can usually withstand a
siphoning. One caution with sand is to not make the layer too
deep. The sand forms a dense layer that is highly resistant
mater movement. If your sand layer is too deep it is likely
you will develop pockets of anaerobic bacteria that can pose problems.
The dense layer that sand makes also is not very good for
roots and if you want rooted plants you will need to make
accommodations. Sand is very convenient for most people.
You can but sand box sand at most home supply centers.
great source is a brick & rock supplier. Although they cater to
contractors they will gladly sell you a bag and they often have a
choice of sizes and colors.
Before you make a final decision about your substrate you
give some thought to the decor that you will use in your tank.
I stated earlier it is critical that you have a complex environment
with as many "hidey holes" and "swim throughs" as possible.
you are keeping a single fish in a community tank this is not as much
of an issue but if you are keeping more than one member of
same species you need some complexity. The amount of
will depend on what types of stocking levels you are shooting for.
If you have a pair of a single species in an adequate sized
you can get by with two or three small areas of complexity.
the group sizes get larger or the tank gets smaller it is important to
be created in different ways. A pile of rocks that creates a
number of passages and caves, a handful of small sections of pvc pipe,
broken flower pots, coconut shell caves, elaborate driftwood and much
more can be used to create complex habitats. I have used all of these
methods (except PVC pipe - too sterile for me!) with great success and
you can make some great tank set ups based on them. However,
believe there are two great ways to create excellent complexity while
actually improving the habitat in the tank. Click
photo to enlarge
This tank was set up as a breeding tank for a
single pair of
Apistogrammas. It has a sand substrate, a pile of Oak leaves
creates many hiding places, a variety of live plants, several large
rocks and two caves. The caves are very hard to spot as they
mostly buried in the sand. Note the several large rocks under
leaves. These create a barrier to any fish that is in the
the left side of the tank. It is always a good idea to create
areas in the tank when possible.
The first method is the use of a layer Oak leaves on the bottom of the
tank. A layer that is two or three inches thick
amazing labyrinth for your fish to swim through, hide in and reproduce
in. In their natural habitats most dwarf cichlids are
with leaves and in some places incredible densities of fish have been
recorded in leaf chocked waters. I recommend Oak leaves for a
couple of reasons. They are a stiff leaf when dried and will
retain much of their stiffness when waterlogged. This means
they will hold their shape to create great caves and passages.
Oak leaves also contain tannins that will help to soften your
water and many believe that these tannins contain beneficial compounds
that aid the fish. Be aware that the same tannins that
these benefits will slowly staining your water a darker color, the
exact shade depending on the amount of leaves you use, the species of
Oak and the age and storage of the leaves. Oak trees grow in
parts of the country and it is usually a simple thing to collect leaves
in the fall. Be sure to wait for the leaves to dry naturally
fall off. These will be better leaves than those collected green and
dried. Take care where you collect from as in some places
are sprayed with chemicals that can be harmful to your fish.
Finally, the method I use most to
complexity and the one I believe is the very best is the use of lots of
live plants. Most of my tanks are nearly chocked with live
creating a maze of passageways and hiding places. I use
plants, loose plants and floating plants that combine to give great
conditions. These plants act as natural filters constantly
improving water quality. They provide live surfaces that are
perfect environments for the microorganisms that the fish will graze
upon. Although few dwarfs actually eat plants many will
plant parts as part of their constant search for food. I
have any magic formulas for plants. There are lots of plant experts and
you can get as deep into aquatic plants as you want and have a great
time doing it. Click
photo to enlarge
This thicket of pygmy chain swords provides a very
habitat. In tanks that are this thick with vegetation fish
hundreds of hiding places and passage ways. It is possible to
maintain very high fish densities in these types of tanks as can be
seen with this group of adult Apistogramma commbrae. There
about 40 adult fish in the 10 gallon tank and aggression was never a
factor because of the dense plantings.
My approach to plants is to
my fish so I want those that will do well in the environments I provide
naturally to my fish - low light & soft acid water. I
more specific information about the plans I grow and how I grow them in
but I will quickly
give you my secret here. Trial and error. That's my
trial and error. I am always buying new plants and trying to
them. If they thrive and need to be cut back then I
am happy if
they linger and die I know that they are not good for me. Of
course, I know enough to stay away from the plants that requirements
opposite what I provide but I have found a number of different plants
that really grow good for me.
In my breeding tanks I combine a lot of
a few caves that are situated on the edges of open areas in the tank.
I generally try to set up only one cave site for a pair and
or three for a trio. In each site I try to have a defined
area that is surrounded on several sides by dense stands of plants. I
put a cave in this area that faces away from the High traffic areas of
the tank. I believe that most females are calmer if they
see other fish when they emerge from their cave. Check out
photos for a few examples of breeding and rearing tanks. In
rearing tanks I like to go for high densities of plants to add extra
hiding places and water filtration.
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