Rock Your World — How to set up and aquascape a proper Cichlid Habitat

I have seen many a cichlid tank. Most of them drive me to despair. They depend on displaying ‘beauty’ only via the colourful fish! As for the rest, most Chichlid tanks are middling to mediocre.

Many is the time I wondered: What happened to the innate creativity of their human owners?

It took a while before I found out that the problem did not rest with creativity. The problem stems from a lack of knowledge of what the species requires for its well-being and then a lack of knowledge about how to construct rocks into a beautiful habitat.

We can change that! You can build a beautiful and functional habitat! Anyone can build a beautiful habitat. I am going to show you how.

A cichlid tank is essentially a Hardscape. This is why I urge you at least read my article on hardscaping, as it contains a myriad of useful tips and tricks. It is called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and can be found under the Aquascaping drop-down menu, where you also found this article.  This article also teaches you exactly how to compose your Hardscape via the rule of thirds. This is information I do not want to repeat here.

As a reward, I am going to begin this article by telling you a very big secret:

If you have placed your stones properly in your hardscape, the rest of the scape, as if by magic, will lay itself out for you.  You will know it the second this happens for you. It is as if the moment you attain a harmony and balance in your placement, everything else is drawn to and wants to become part of that balance.

I also have a second secret to building a beautiful cichlid Hardscape. We will do it OUTSIDE of the tank first. You may think that I am crazy, but you will only think so until you have done it your way — which means dripping water all over the place and cursing with frustration, or even worse, cracking the floor, or a wall of your tank!

Trust me, my way is better.

PLANNING AND WEIGHING YOUR OPTIONS

The first thing you have to consider is how your tank is going to be viewed. From the front only, from the sides too, or perhaps from all sides because your tank is a room divider? Is it going to be viewed from eye-level when you are standing, or when you are seated, or will it be partly viewed from above? This is important, because it will determine how and where and how you are going to place your rocks.

The second thing you have to consider is the importance of water flow. Walls of  rock break up water flow very efficiently. You may need an additional power head blowing into and through your stone terraces and mounds to ensure good, full and complete circulation. You do not want debris collecting in a place you can not see or get to!

The third thing you need to consider, and certainly the most important,  is the natural habitat of your cichlid species.

I assume, of course, that you know everything about cichlid tank water chemistry and water changes, as well as the nature and feeding habits of the species you want to keep, and that your only worry is how to create the perfect aquascaped habitat for them. If you do not, there is an excellent article here.

Then, before we consider what we are going to do about your cichlid habitat, I need to plant a little seed, which I hope will grow and flourish by the end of this article.

Below there are three images of cichlid tanks

The first is a tank created by Aquarium Design Group – a big name lately in the USA. All the tanks designed by this group are truly stunning to look at,  and each single one is designed for modern living surrounds. Sadly, few, if any of them has anything to do with the fishes’ natural habitat, or their needs. In the case of this particular cichlid tank, there is no dispute about it being modern, streamlined, and beautiful in a stark way. But it also seems sterile. In fact, it seems as if much more thought had been given to the tank as an interior design element, than to whether this arrangement will make the Cichlids happy. Yes, Cichlids are hardy and they will do well in a tank like this, irrespective. But it is unlikely that they will ever breed in a tank like this, and as unlikely they will behave as they characteristically would, were they in an environment closer to what they evolved from and are hardwired to.

cichlid habitat

The second tank was an entry in the AGA International Competition and was titled ‘Malawian Bliss’. We clearly see the attempt here to simulate a more natural habitat. The Hardscape is well done, and the rocks are algae covered as they should be, but for me this tank lacks that certain ‘oomph’! There is no visual tension in the composition of the aquascape. The horizontal line, while texturally different, is relatively even across the entire tank. If you have read my hardscaping article, you would immediately ask — has this person never heard of the rule of thirds? And are there really enough retreats for the fish? 

cichlid habitat

The third tank was entered in the AGA international competition in 2008 as a Tanganyika Biotope.While initially impressive from a rockwork technique point of view, I have to agree with the judges, who found this tank oppressive and much too bare. I find the tank somewhat pedantically put together, a case where science and study has somehow gone wrong. Perhaps what bothers me most is that the proverbial aquarium ‘box of glass’ has travelled no further than transforming into a ‘box of rock face’. Since I am naturally not unkind, I must make some allowances. This tank may well have grown in the meantime, the contestant may have taken the judges comments to heart and the tank today may be a totally different vision. But the point is to show you that being clever does not necessarily make a beautiful aquascape.

cichlid habitat

What do you think?

While I grant that tastes differ, I personally would not like to have any of these three tanks in my home. For me they are much too far removed from the tenets that nature teaches us. Where is that feeling of wild abundance, of species having evolved and survived through millennia, of species wanting to reproduce and defend their territories. In short, where is the essence of cichlid life?

In contrast, let us compare these three tanks with the natural rock structures at Otter Point, Lake Malawi, shown in the photograph below. In my geographical experience, what we see above water is usually a very good indication of what we will see if we dive below the water surface. So what do you think now?

natural rocks of Lake Malawi

 

A few colourful species  flitting past do not make a tank come to life. For me, it is the down and dirty everyday life of each species that makes the difference,  their interaction with co-habitants and the beauty with which nature creates and divides their habitats, filling it with countless possibilities for each kind to find a niche and a home and to truly be what they were meant to be.

cichlids in aquarium

So inevitably, before we begin, we must ask this question:

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE?

Would you like to create a biotope, which is a true simulation of a natural cychlid habitat? When interpreted in the strictest sense (and I am talking about international competition rules), this would mean that you cannot mix species from different lakes, or for that matter, different continents. So, say you want to create a Lake Malawi biotope, or a mini biotope that can be found inLake Malawi, you would have to study from what areas the species you want to keep come, whether they inhabit rocky shores or live closer to the sand, or whether they come from areas closer to river estuaries. You would also have to ascertain which species co-habit naturally.

If you are not interested in entering international competitions, you can of course choose to treat you tank as a less rigidly constricted habitat, and your approach can then  differ quite significantly from that of the aqua-scaper who wants a biotope.

Nevertheless, we are more likely to have a beautiful, and in all ways a successful Cichlid tank if we follow the lessons that nature teaches us. It is at this point, when we actually stop to ponder about what would be the best habitat for the species we want to keep, that we finally become more than just ‘creative’ aquascapers – we become  responsible aquascapers!

There is really only one aquascape that will reveal the true behaviour of cichlids: their natural instincts, their amazing personalities, their wonderfully pugnacious ways, their desire to mate and spawn; and only one habitat in which there will be an increase in their spawning frequency. The best aquascape for cichlids is plain sand and rocks. A lot of sand and many rocks. Follow this simple recipe, and success is almost guaranteed.

Why rocks and sand? Firstly, because this is their natural biotope. While fish-keeping is both an art and a science, it seems stupid to neglect what nature tells us about Cichlid habitats. Cichlids evolved in this specific environment for millions of years and everything they do, even the way they look, is adapted to their environment. Give them the habitat to which they are hard-wired from an evolutionary point of view, and arrange it in such a way that aggression is reduced, and you will have a tank in which cichlids thrive. Keeping Cichlids in any environment other than rocks and sand  is by definition already “unnatural”.

The second reason for choosing a sand and stone environment is that Cichlids use these two elements all the time for their everyday needs. The Malawian rock dwelling cichlids (mbuna),  their Victorian counterparts and the Tropheus genus from lake Tanganyika,  are classic examples. They use the huge rocks to eat algae from, together with the invertebrates or crustaceans that live in it. They also use these rocks to hide, or to spawn. In short, they spend their whole lives next to rocks. Keeping them in an aquarium without rocks is not only unnatural, it is simply cruel. Haps, on the other hand, use sand to create their spawning pits, clean their gills, and now there is evidence that they even use it to digest their food. So sand is not simply a substrate or an accessory, it is a vital element of their surroundings, and it is essential for their well being.

The third reason is that when we examine the aesthetics of the sand and rock combination, nothing really beats it. It is pale and neutral and brings out the colours of even the dullest fish. It does not distract the eye from the fish, as colourful plants would, thus making your precious fish the very center point of this habitat. And because it is made up of the essentials for the species, it automatically creates the impression that this is a miniature of the natural lake.  Sand and rocks, dear Cichlid lover,  is all African cichlids from the Rift Lakes will ever need!

So where do our materials for our aquascaping project come from?

COLLECTING THE ROCKS

As it is unlikely that you will find rocks that show water-worn characteristics in your local fish store or at the landscapers, you will need to collect your rocks from areas where you are most likely find the right kind of stone. That means dry stream beds and river banks, or if you live near the sea, rocky seashores.

Before you set off on your hunt, you need to consider several things:

  •  If you have not yet read the Hardscaping article, you will not know what to look for when I refer to a main focal point, a secondary focal point and a third accent point, nor will you understand how we are going to employ the rule of thirds to give us the most harmonious result.  You have to collect rocks that will help you to fulfil certain design elements. How can you, if you do not know what is required? So read the article before you begun hunting for rocks!
  • Know the exact dimensions of your tank. When it comes to housing African cichlids, bigger is always better. Many hobbyists keeping African Cichlids have tanks well exceeding the 1.000 liter mark and even 2.000 liters is not very rare. Buying a small tank of 20-30 liters is not suitable for cichlids from Lake Malawi, except for the very smallest species. This is mainly the reason why we hold that Cichlids are not for the beginner, except perhaps when it comes to the dwarf species or shell dwellers. In my opinion the smallest tank for Cichlids should be at the very least around the 400-450 litre mark, because you need space in which to configure a habitat that will help you reduce Cichlid aggression.

    If one follows the correct pathway, one is usually supposed to learn the basics of fish keeping with a small community tank and then move to a bigger tank with more demanding species. Do not follow this rule with Cichlids!

    Choose a large tank if you have not bought one yet, and preferably choose one that is wider than ‘normal’. Even just 10 cm wider can make an enormous difference to the habitat you can then provide. It is also easier to keep a large tank stable, and since cichlids can grow very fast, it is the best way to prevent ending up with a tank which is much to small for the adult species. Smaller tanks are more suited to the smaller and dwarf cichlid species. The other point is that the concept of ‘a big’ stone’ can markedly differ in size,  depending on the dimensions of your tank.

  • Keep in mind that stones are heavy! On average you must calculate that a rock is 2.5 times heavier than water. Not only must your tank stand and house floor be able to bear the weight of the rock arrangement, substrate and water, but you must also pick up and get the stones to your car and then repeat this process to get them into your home! If you are going to build a very large hardscape, you may want to consider using some artificial rocks in addition to real ones, at least for the bulkier parts of your scape. I have very successfully used ‘artificial rock’ water-features which I found at a garden centre to create bulk and height in a very large tank.
  •  The depth of the sand layer in a cichlid tank should be at least between 5 and 10 cm. Sand also weighs 2.5 more than water. In view of that, a 10 cm layer in a tank 2.1 m x 0.6 m x 0.6 m, which is quite typical for big African cichlids, will weigh 315 Kg.! Is your tank stand and the floor of the room strong enough to bear the entire load?  Make sure!  Do the math again:  Aquarium + rocks + sand + water!  Are you sure? If you need to ‘brace’ your tank, do so well in advance. Also cut a solid board to go under your tank, so that you know it is stable and cannot warp or bulge. If you choose a really large tank, do not put it on a wooden floor that rests on joists unless you have taken the necessary precautions.
  • Also keep in mind that no under-gravel filter can be used with the sand, as it will become too packed to allow any kind of flow to the filter. On the other hand, with the help of stones or other materials, sand can be cleverly used to create different levels in the tank, which can be something unusual and attractive. Instead choose a powerful filtration system, that can be housed in your tank or a sump, as good, even over-filtration is essential when keeping Chichlids
  • Take a ruler or other measuring device with you. Collecting a beautiful huge stone, flat or round, is pointless if it won’t fit in your tank.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

Consider the following images. I used them in the Hardscaping article. The reason I draw your attention to them here is that you should think in terms of creating groups of stones when you go out to collect rock. In these images we see the rocks skilfully built into one single focal feature. But, depending on the size of your tank you may want to use two or three such groups, or in a very large tank combine quite a few of them. Also look for large, medium and small groups — you will use them with the rule of thirds to create secondary focal points, as well as different harmonious levels! When we create an aquascape we also want to curve our stone from the back to the front and back again several times in order to delineate separate territories, rather then build a static wall. Likewise, a smaller or medium group could perhaps form a separate island closer to the foreground.

building with rocks in an aquarium

rock building in an aquarium

For an African cichlid tank you will need some rounded boulders, or if you prefer more angular stones, at least choose stones which have SLIGHTLY softened or rounded corners. Also try to find matching rocks with a more pyramidical shape, because these can help you to break up the flat base of the aquarium box, as well as help wedge groups of rounder rocks into holding their place. You should also collect flatter rocks, thinking along the line of ledges, bases and spawning places.  Remember to vary your sizes, but keep to the same type of rocks. Mixed rocks with difgfgerent strata or textures somehow never look right.  Find at least one or two really large feature rocks. This prevents your aquascape from looking like a heap of collapsed rubble.

The reason your rocks should not have sharp edges is that sometimes your fish may need to scratch on the rocks because of the presence of protozoans in their skin and gills. Sharp edges may scratch their protective slime coat –  a certain first step for all sorts of infections to begin.

Make your way slowly along your riverbed, stream, or rocky beach and keep your eyes open for suitable rocks for the three main features. Don’t waste your time with rocks smaller than your fist, even for a ten-gallon tank. You can always stuff a few smalls in later if you think you will need them to fill in gaps or stabilize larger rocks.

Judge likely rocks on the palm of your hand. The wider the base is, in proportion to its height, the more stable the rock will be once placed in the tank. Stash likely rocks and edit as you go along. Later, when you come to use a rock with a tapering pyramidal shape in your aquascaping project, you’ll completely mask all its lower corners and edges with your substrate, so that it will rise like the tip of a giant boulder that is all but buried in the sand and small cobbles of the floor. In fact, try combining your good pyramid rocks with a second pyramid so that there’s a narrow cleft separating them. If a rolling cobble were to come to rest against them, you’d have a cave. Larger flat rocks with rounded corners may also come in handy as bases or to build terraces for species that dislike substrate.

Avoid any rock which has plant matter attached on it (lichen, algae or other plants). If you plan to have a well-lit tank, the colours of the rocks do not really matter as much as the shape, because they will soon be covered with algae.

If you will have a normally lit tank you should avoid white or light coloured stones and opt for darker ones. The best colours are black, dark gray, dark green and dark brown. These colours make a natural contrast with the light colour of the sand. The best stones can be found in the water or at the waterline, since these stones are washed by water and there are absolutely no sharp edges.

Watch out for any rocks with a vein that seems metallic in colour (like rusty iron) They may have a metal content that can leach out in your tank and poison your fish. You could test them, but I am not even going to suggest this. Just leave them and find something else.

There is one last question we have to address here: How many rocks can you safely put in your tank? Remember that you cannot just keep stacking and expect your aquarium to hold it. There are limits to everything. A rough rule of thumb is never to exceed more than half the weight of rock as litres of water in your tank, provided that your tank has been braced and you have a solid board as well as a Styrofoam layer underneath it.  That is a lot of rock — or not — depending on what you collect. The alternative is to use hollow artificial rock to provide your bulk and then camouflage it with your natural rock.

THE SAND OR SUBSTRATE

The best sand for a Cichlid Aquarium is plain river sand. Forget what the ‘experts’ tell you – they usually sell expensive branded sand and usually try to convince you of the products under the the guise of ‘buffering your water’.  Coral sand does indeed help buffer your water, but any other sand, shells, or crushed coral meant to assist in buffering your water belongs in a sump where water constantly flows across it to have any real effect.  Instead learn how to get and maintain the correct pH factor for a Cichlid tank, because there is much more to this art than just adding an expensive substrate to your tank!

CLEANING THE SAND AND THE ROCKS

You will have to use buckets and plenty of water. Don’t rush this procedure; take your time. The more time you spend cleaning the sand at this stage the fewer problems you will have later on. Otherwise you will have a cloudy tank, all dust will settle on the bottom and will then reappear every time your fish stir the sand. Dust may also clog your filter, especially if you use sponge filters. Use many changes of water and continuously stir the sand with your hand until the water runs totally clear.

With rocks you will have one step more. Before washing them you will have to scrub them with clean brush (tooth- and bath bath brushes work well) to remove any particles from their surface. Then you will wash them, separately from the sand and preferably with some pressure behind your water flow, until the water runs clear.

Then wash your sand, stirring over and over until the water runs completely clear. After the final washing you will have to disinfect your sand and the stones. You can either boil, or chemically disinfect the sand and the stones. I do not recommend boiling sand and rocks. It is cumbersome and sometimes the rock may break, especially if any air is trapped in a hidden cavity. If I am convinced that the sand and rocks are dangerously dirty, I prefer chemical disinfection with Hydrogen Peroxide (H202) because it turns into harmless water and oxygen after 24 hours in contact with water. It is therefore the perfect solution for use in the aquarium environment. (Nature uses the same process to sterilise beaches). You can also use 10% household chlorine solution for both rocks and sand. Leave the chlorine solution for 2 hours and then wash it out with plenty of water. You can only stop when there is no more chlorine smell and no foam is formed. The last step is to fill your bucket with water, add 10 times the recommended dose of de-chlorinator and leave your sand in there for an additional 15 minutes. Stir the sand at this point. After that, remove the water and let the sand and stone dry completely. You should then store both sand and rocks in closed containers until you need them. Many people may still prefer to rather pay for pre-cleaned coral sand. The size of your tank will tell you if that is a viable option for you. Coral sand is expensive, but yes, it does to some extent help you with buffering your Cichlid tank

BEGINNING TO BUILD YOUR AQUASCAPE

As suggested in my hardscaping article, begin by preparing a workspace on a table where you will not be disturbed. While it is not possible to construct an entire cichlid aquascape outside of the tank as I would normally do for a hardscape, you will construct large parts of it outside the tank until you are very sure that the arrangement you have is good and ready to go inside the tank. You may even partially build connecting parts and finish these off after they have gone into the tank.

Place the cardboard you cut out to simulate your aquarium floor on the table and mark your rule of thirds grid on it. If you have a tank that is viewed mainly from the front, add a cardboard cut out that simulates the back wall of your aquarium, and also mark that with the rule of thirds grid.

We now need to stop and consider those things that will significantly influence how we are going to build our aquascape.

Our first consideration must be the well-being of our Cichlids – which means we need to understand how cichlids behave, especially once they are kept captive in an aquarium!

As an early pre-warning, please bear in mind that whatever you build, your Cichlids will try to change your aquascape to fit their own needs. This is a battle you cannot ever completely win. They will keep on moving their sand where they want it to be, and under-dig rocks with a tenacity that can last over weeks, sand grain by sand grain,  in an attempt to move, or topple your rocks  to a more favourable place for them, irrespective of how many times you put those same rocks back in place.

But why do Cichlids do this?

We need to understand that by housing Cichlids in our aquaria, we offer them no more than just a miniscule portion the habitat they would have had in their native habitat — and then, as is the case in most Cichlid aquariums, not even a habitat anywhere close to resembling what they are hardwired to from an evolutionary standpoint.  Yet, Cichlids are extremely sensitive to their environment, and in captivity they become even more so, mainly because they use their surrounding environment – as most animals do – to mark and establish own territories. Therefore anything you provide in your aquarium as ‘décor’ becomes a potential marker or boundary and will be, or could be treated as that!

Cichlids are notorious for being territorial fishes. Therefore,  the worst possible thing you can do is to house them in a tank with inadequate aquascaping materials. In days gone by, some hobbyists wrongly believed that by removing territorially claimed elements the fish would have nothing to fight about. Today we know that the emptier the tank, the less these fish can find to mark and defend their own territories and the the worse the fighting becomes. 

I want to make sure that this re-arrangement battle does not frustrate you — by adding a little sentence to my original statement: It is a battle you cannot ever completely win — unless you carefully observe what your cichlids are doing, in order to try to find out the WHY.

The why will almost with certainty point out where you went wrong in your idea of a cichlid habitat. And in my experience, the ‘why’ is usually a lack of sufficient space and space delineation,  combined with too few caves. 

Since we know that Cichlids are territorial, and know that they will aggressively defend their territories, the only logical answer is to cater to their natural needs. Where it was once thought that food and breeding are the two greatest triggers of aggression in Cichlids, it has now come to light that habitat – or the possibility of claiming part of a given habitat – may in fact be the most important aggression trigger of all.  This makes logical sense if we consider that Cichlids have large parts of a lake available in their natural habitat, to live in and on, to claim, to defend and to spread out in case of disputes. However large our tanks are, in comparison to what they would have had in the Lake, we can offer them barely more than just a tiny slice of mimicked nature in the small, constrained spaces of our aquariums.

We thus have to build in such a way that each of our fish will have a place to call their own, to which they can retreat for safety, and which they can defend to their heart’s content against any usurpers. This may even mean building in such a way that we actually create several VISUAL barriers beyond which fish defending their own patch cannot see! 

The secret is to a happy Cichlid habitat is to ensure that you tank is as complex as possible. The  the key word here is COMPLEX.

The second consideration is of a more aesthetic nature, namely whether the tank will be viewed only from the front (and the two short sides), or whether it will be visible from both sides plus one short side, as it would be if the tank is a room divider — or from all four sides if it is a walk around tank. The arrangement of your aquascape depends completely on this.

In the all-round tank, you have to consider the aesthetics from all sides and create your scape accordingly. With other words, you will create either an island, or an island and a slope for the walk around tank. For the room divider, you will create either an island, or possibly a peninsula  which is ‘attached’ to the short side against the wall,  and connect it with outcropping and overlapping valleys as you move towards the other glass end of the tank. Either construction will greatly influence how you use the rule of thirds.

In the tank with the front view, you want to avoid a construction that looks like a wall,  simply slapped on and propped-up by the back wall. You need to create mounts and outcrops with terraces, perhaps with a valley or gully in between and also run curved sloping peninsulas from these towards the front of the tank. Any or all of these can help provide those visual barriers mentioned before. You could also consider a medium height island mount somewhere towards the front – about  one third of the tank length off the right or left.  Position individual rocks or rock formations somewhat away from the outside, and the back areas of the tank walls. This avoids dead spots, as staying away from tank walls allow for better water circulation around the rocks, and gives you more space for maintenance, as well room for your fish to get by them.

Because of the importance of sand in the lifestyle of some cichlids you must in both of these cases leave sufficiently large open areas that will later be utilised for sand. These areas serve as much as a composition factor as your rocks, because they ‘frame’ your aquascape, emphasize the focal points and give the entire scape  some ‘breathing space’.

The third consideration is the solidity of your structures.  Falling or slipping rocks can spell total disaster for your aquarium. So whatever you build — your main priority must be securing the rocks so that they cannot topple or slip.

The last crucial consideration must once again be how the habitat you build will benefit the fish you are going to keep in it, because it will automatically influence how you are going to put together your rock structures. You are after all not only creating an aquascape for an admiring human audience, but in fact are trying to create a perfect, nature-mimicking Cichlid habitat!

We all know (or should by now know) that African Rift Lake cichlids require a lot of caves, retreats and hiding spots, that the best substrate for their tanks is well washed sand, and that the ratio of males to females is of paramount importance. 

But there is one more secret to creating a proper Cichlid habitat:  The provision of caves that are never, ever moved, or re-arranged by us, and can never be toppled or under-dug by the tank inhabitants. Trivial though this little detail may seem to us, the sense of permanence and security is of paramount importance to a Cichlid seeking to claim a personal territory in which to live and thrive.

To understand this, simply  consider how you have chosen your own home to attain a semblance of permanence, have made sure your ‘back is covered’, and have put security measures into place to protect yourself and your family. Seeking safe shelter is a basic instinct for all living beings. Why should it be difficult to understand that your fish need the same?

Permanent caves are easily made from stones ‘glued’ together with aquarium silicone, taking care to leave only one entry point. Use a round plastic dish in which to stack smaller pebbles, building up and glueing with aquarium silicone as you go, as shown in the illustrations below, and finally camouflage with more pebbles if necessary.

cichlid cave

cichlid cave

cichlid caves

 Alternatively, small clay pots, (extremely ugly in a tank on their own), can be similarly camouflaged with stones and built or ‘glued’ into your rock structure. You need to ensure that these permanent caves also offer a ‘view’, so that the fish, while inside, or in front of their caves, do not have to strain to find out what is going on in their particular piece of habitat.  Once in place and claimed by your Cichlids, make sure that you never move, open, or disturb these ‘caves’. They need to imbue a sense of security and permanence in the eyes of the fish. You will see how much your fish love these caves! They will not only sleep and live in them, they will housekeep these private ‘homes’ by carrying out any any debris and constantly fanning and sweeping them! 

Wake up your inner architect! It helps if you think of your rock-work as building a step-staggered apartment block, with marvellous modern curves leading in and out throughout the whole horizontal plane of the structure, designed to give all  its residents views as well as privacy! Create visual breaks between territories by bringing some of your building closer to the front of the tank and then cut back deeper towards the back, almost as if you are building several sports arenas. Knowing this in advance helps set your mind in the right kind of frame for creativity.

As to how we are going to secure the rocks against falling, there are two ways.

The first way is to ‘glue’ some of the rocks together with aquarium silicone, or an aquarium safe epoxy. You will probably only do this for your more imortant bases and then only when you are really sure of your arrangement. Also, the silicone or epoxy should be allowed to dry completely before it is ready to go into the tank.

The second way is by placing the rockwork on the bare bottom of the tank, but cushioning it on a cut-to-shape sheet of Styrofoam. This distributes the weight evenly, protects your glass and makes it impossible for cichlids to dig under. Then build upon the base, alternately wedging and glueing in your pre-prepared caves and more rocks. You could also use ‘egg-crate’ as cushion, but because of the possible danger of food debris,  I usually do not recommend this for a cichlid tank, unless you have a good deep layer of sand above it .

The last way is to secure the rockwork to the bottom of the tank with either dabs of silicone, or dots of the two-part epoxy aquarium cement that hardens underwater. I’m reluctant to recommend this as it makes future changes difficult if not close to impossible, and it also leaves a residue on the tank floor that is not easy to get rid of.  I have wondered,  whether the insertion of a second sheet of glass just slightly smaller than the floor could be the answer, but have never tried it.

Even so, we should not really totally depend on silicone, or cement for stability: a stable rock always sits steady on three points. Chips of slate can be slid in from behind under a rock until it sits tight.

NOW GO FOR IT!

Compose and build. Choose a sweet spot for your main focal point. This is the largest and highest of the three complimentary focal points. (The other two points are determined by the main focal point, and together with the main point will roughly form an imaginary triangle when finished) Remember to use the upper part of your aquarium as much as you can. (If you are going to keep Mbunas, your structure needs to almost touch the water surface, and you need to create small plateaus on top, with many small pebbles loosely but densely layered as it is here in the ‘shallows’ that they will usually hide their fry!) If your focal point is not high enough, you may have to elevate it by using thick flat rocks as a base. Build your focal point securely, but at the same time loose and ‘lace-like’ enough to create caves, crannies and nooks. This also allows for good water circulation through and around the structure!

You should create caves of variable sizes throughout the entire project — in fact you can never have enough! Keep in mind that tiny fishes as well as adult ones will use these caves. The fry released in the tank during the first stage of their lives will use the smallest caves. They should be really so small that the fry will fit in but larger fish won’t. This will dramatically increase the survival rate of all fry in your tank. 

Caves are also used by prey trying to escape its predators; since the victims can be any size, you need many sizes of caves. Submissive males will also use caves to escape the harassing of dominant male cichlids, while carrying females, as well as sick, or wounded fish will use them as a shelter. Finally, ground-floor caves are often used as day homes for nocturnal species like catfishes, plecos, loaches and Synodontis species.

Round rocks can help you make really tiny caves. You just put two round stones next to each other and let their shape work out the rest. Round stones can also be used as a support for larger flat stones.

By NOT stacking your rocks too tightly, you make it easier to later remove any  detritus that collects between the rocks, or at their base. This can  be done by either siphoning, or blowing it out using a water flow source. A simple turkey baster also works well for this task. It will also allow your ‘cleaner crew’ to move freely throughout the structure to help keep organic matter cleared.

Next you will tackle the second, lower and less bulky focal point and lastly the third accent focal point, all the while continuing your cave-and-pavillion-building style. Once these three ‘elements’  are complete, be they groupings of rocks or not,  stand back and see how they work in terms of placement according to the rule of thirds.

 Then decide whether you want to connect one, two or even three of them to some sloping terraces. You must construct these ‘connectors’ separately and put them together in the tank. Use your creativity to create a scene that is not static like a wall; curve in and out, create valleys and canyons,  run a slope down into the (future) substrate toward the front, use flat rocks to create spawning places that can simultaneously be ‘roofs’ for caves. Many species prefer to spawn on flat rocks and will dig for them if you do not make enough such spaces available.Right at the end you may even want to half-bury some flat pieces for your fish to find!  It gives your fish somethiung stimulating to do!

Rock-work caves have to be stable. You know that. So, don’t slip up now.

Only glue or putty your rocks together when you are completely convinced that you will stick with your design. Also take care not to make any one element so heavy that you won’t be able to lift it into the aquarium.

TIME FOR SOME IDEAS!

I used the image below in the hardscaping article, even though it is a planted tank. I use it here once again to show how valleys and overlapping slopes can add to the beauty and ‘depth’ of your scape – as well as add territorial functionality, were you to use this idea and create a free-sanding rock structure with similar lines in your cichlid tank. The rockwork in this example is much too dense to be suited to a cichlid tank, and there is no sand — but it’s the shape of the scape I want you to see. Just ‘think’ away the plants and use just the the composition and lines as inspiration! For interest sake, this is a tiny 25 litre nano-tank!

how to use rocks in an aquarium

In this medium sized cichlid tank below, large rounded boulders have been used to simulate a rift lake habitat. I use it here to demonstrate that a difference in levels add to the visual interest of a cichlid hardscape. I find that there are not enough caves. I also think it could have been a better scape if the aquascaper used the rule of thirds. From a design point of view, the addition of just two more rocks could have made all the difference to this tank!

how to use rocks in a cichlid aquarium

WHAT NOT TO DO

I have looked everywhere for images of cichlid tanks that could show you what to do. They are as rare as hens’ teeth! I must instead use images that show you what NOT to do, because we can all learn from the folly of others. So here follows a series of tanks that you should absolutely NOT replicate!

Do not ever use discordant rocks. They will never look natural, because they do not occur in nature like this. Also use the full top to bottom depth of your tank. Why leave so much wasted space in the upper half of the tank?

 

Could we agree to let nature be the best expression of our spirituality?

 

Sooo artificial, it makes me weep!

 

Waste of a pretty good tank. Discordant rocks, haphazard arrangement, non-functional for a cichlid habitat – and the top three quarters of the tank is not just under-utilised, it is totally empty!

 

Why bother? Swim throughs are not caves or retreats. Also, there are no corals in a cichlid habitat. This is clearly an unfulfilled dream, destined to remain unfulfilled!

 

No! No! No! The Berlin Wall fell years ago! And again, there are no safe retreats!

 

The tank itself is nice. The execution belongs in the Kiddies department. If you are a parent, teach your children early on why nature is as beautiful and functional as it is!

 

The only plus of this tank is that the rock work uses most of the available space. However, the rocks are too densely packed, there is almost no sand and there is very little free swimming space.

 

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

I cannot bear to depress you any further, so to get you in the right mindset, let’s look at some more positive images!

 

Another tank by Aquarium Design Group. This is still an interior design element, rather than a proper cichlid habitat. I am all for challenging set perceptions, but not if it compromises living organisms. However, it is the idea of the layout I want you to analyse and study: The way elements have been placed, the way the rocks are stretched out and fill the tank from side to side. Learn from that and make it better. Build higher upwards. Use the upper space of the tank to create more nooks and crannies for your fish! There are not nearly enough caves and hides in this scape!

 

The idea is there, but there is a lot of wasted space in the upper part of the tank, which could add a considerable amount of ‘personal’ spaces to this habitat! We have two good focal points, but they are very similar in size and also are placed in the same horizontal plane, so the design looks static. Both mounds should be higher, but not equally high. Use your aquarium to its fullest, leaving some swimming space above the rocks, but a lot more swimming space closer to the front, so that you can enjoy your fish as they move about. By moving one mount slightly further back, and the other slightly closer to the front, you’ll immediately create a habitat with more ‘body’ to it. That is precisely the point of using the primary and secondary sweet spots!

 

This is quite a good attempt in a relatively small tank; the scape looks natural and offers lots of caves and hides. There is also ample swimming space. In time, however, the cichlids will outgrow this tank. Always keep their adult size in mind when you buy a tank or build an aquascape for cichlids.

 

The rock-work here has been very well designed. Although the rocks are not typical of what you would find in Lake Malawi, the formations look natural, as if they simply naturally spilled onto the sandy floor.The tilt and strata lines are correctly used. The balance between sand and rock is great. There is visual tension and the eye is led towards the back, creating a feeling of depth. The arrangement also clearly delineates different territories. The only thing I would change, would be to heighten the entire scape a little, because that will help separate upper range swimmers from mid and lower range species, and would make better use of the upper space the tank actually offers. There is no reason why you cannot use the overall idea to scape with rounder boulders!


It is not my intention to be nasty or over-critical, so please take my comments on the tanks as illustration as a way to explain in such a way that you can see the stong and weak points in each one. The aim is to help you to repeat the good and avoid the bad in your own design – and to encourage you to give it a much more informed  go! 

When you have completed your aquascape design, all glue or putty has cured and dried, and you have cut the Styrofoam sheets or egg-crate you will need to place under your rocks, it is time to transfer your aquascape into the tank, element by element and piece by piece.

 The floor of your tank should be clean and free of grit and sand grains, and you have hopefully already painted your back wall. A background is one of the best ways to ensure that your cichlids will feel comfortable in your aquarium – whether you have gone for a simple layer of black paint to the back wall, or a bought aquarium background. A background not only helps to make an aquarium look more ‘finished’ – but more importantly, it provides a sense of  cover for the fish. We do not know why this is so, but when there is a background, the fish spend much less time “worrying” about their backs! 

 

An excellent way to move stones into and out of the aquarium is to use a plywood board that is laid on the corner of the tank, as demonstrated in the sketch below. This way you prevent damage to the glass edge, and the rock can be handled completely by yourself.

how to lift rocks into an aquarium

When you have transported your entire aquascape into your tank, stand back and let your eyes roam over the scene. Does it tell you the story you set out to tell?  Now is the time to make adjustments. Check that everything is truly steady and every rock rests securely on the base of your tank. Make sure that subsequent layers are equally steady and secure. If not, you may want to add dabs of aquarium silicone.

When all is done, it is time to add the sand. Make the layer at least 5 to 10 cm thick. Hopefully you have kept a couple of small stones that you can now add on top of the sand, close to the bases of the bigger rocks. This will allow smaller cichlids to play with their ‘own’ sand while still safe from larger predators. You may also want to hide a few smaller flat rocks in the sand. Substrate diggers love them and are amazingly adept at finding these hidden pieces when they are looking for a flat rock on which to spawn.

Add water only when all your silicon or epoxy dabs are dry and odour free. Place a soup plate or small bowl on the sand floor and direct the flow of your water into this, so that you do not whirl up dust or disturb your substrate or scape. If you have used tap water, add the appropriate amount of dechlorinator and let the tank settle. Then, if you are going to add a bacterium potion, do this a few hours later. I strongly recommend that you switch on your lights and cycle your tank for some time before you put any fish in the tank, for the simple reason that this will allow an algae growth to begin on your rocks. Algae is an important food source for cichlids and should make them very happy when you finally put them in the tank.

Do not put plants in your cichlid tank – unless you are specifically doing an estuarine or river cichlid biotope. They will not last, and besides, they simply do not belong in an African rift lake habitat! If you chose wisely and build with some thought, your cichlid habitat can take on a stark and rugged beauty of its own – and above all, it will be exactly what your fish need!

Finally stand back and enjoy.

As I said before, if you wish your rocks to cover with algae, which are what cichlids partially feed on in their natural habitat, you need good strong lighting and a couple of days, but preferably one or two weeks of cycling. Please do not introduce fish before your system is working properly and your water parameters are correct. You do not want to experiment with your water chemistry with livestock in the tank. Check your water flow and add another power head if necessary. Many cichlids come from the upper ranges of the lakes and are used to and enjoy a bit of wind-generated turbulence. If algae threaten to take over too drastically, dampen your lights and check your water. Rather than using too many chemicals, remedy the algae growth spurt by temporarily adding a bunch of floating plants (hornwort is both cheap and easily removed) to help absorb the nasties in the water and shade the tank without eliminating light entirely. This remedy works astonishingly well, and has no strange water parameter altering knock-on effects.

The latest research suggests that a one hour lighting break at midday via a timer switch is another excellent remedy against unwanted algae. You can step your lighting back up once you have your algae eating cichlids  in the tank. In the interest of territorial equality, it is probably wiser to add all your fish at once.  The best time for this is probably close to night time, otherwise you may want to lessen the lights until they have settled in.

HOWEVER, you now need to keep a sharp eye on your water quality, as you will certainly see a nitrate spike if you introduce all your fish at the same time.  Also, refrain from feeding until all your fish have settled in and found own territories.  For the first two or three weeks keep on doing very frequent water changes until your system settles and balances itself.

Maintaining your aquarium is not difficult if you start your tank with the correct parameters and have allowed cycling to take place. If you did, you will find over time that except for water changes or top ups, you will probably be able to keep your tank ship shape with large intervals in between. Make sure to count your fish and inspect all parts of your tank when you do water changes, to make sure there are no skeletons hidden and no rocks being under-dug by your fish! If you have very good filtration, siphoning the sand every two months is enough. A certain amount of organic detritus is necessary for beneficial bacterial colonies to grow. Just always keep your eye on your water! And don’t siphon if it is not obviously necessary. Some tanks can go for 6 months without! Only work the upper layer, leaving anaerobic bacteria in the lower levels of the sand intact. You can safely recycle sand pulled off while siphoning, simply by washing and retuning it.

We have come a long way together. I hope that this guide results in a really stunning cichlid tank of which you can be truly proud.  As you by now must have noticed, your imagination is the only limit.  Rather than a dull, same-old-same-old tank you should have a gorgeous, natural looking aquarium filled with really happy inhabitants. Enjoy the spectacle as your cichlids finally claim their territories, find hides when they are threatened, retreat when they are defeated and spawn as often as they like. After all, you are the creator of the habitat in which they will live their lives as they were meant to.

Good luck!

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