Looking At Victoria Cichlids
By Daniela Rizza
During the 1980s a new and fascinating market seemed to be opening up to aquarium hobbyists. Fish from Lake Victoria and its satellite lakes we being exported from Uganda and Tanzania, and many of these exhibited the bright colours and interesting behaviours that had made the cichlids of Lake Malawi so popular. These Lake Victoria cichlids also seem to be hardy and easy to keep, adding to their promise.
But Lake Victoria turned out to be a tragedy rather than a triumph. Populations of an introduced predator, the Nile Perch Lates niloticus were rapidly increasing, and this seemed to be causing the endemic cichlids major problems. Some cichlid species went extinct even before scientists had properly described them!
Huge floating islands of an exotic plant, the Water Hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes made things even worse, clogging up the shallow water habitats most cichlids prefer. Coupled with deforestation around the edges of the lake, these floating plants also increased the murkiness of the water, creating conditions that cichlids, being essentially visual fish, couldn't cope with. Among other problems, females couldn't adequately recognise males of their own species, leading to an increase in hybridisation.
Scientists despaired, and fish exporters gave up, and over time, the hobby all but forgot about the cichlids of Lake Victoria.
Haplochromis sp. 44 “Red Tail” is a colourful and fairly widely traded species; basic care is similar to the Haplochromis sp. “All Red” described in the text.
The current state of Victorian cichlids in the hobby
The cichlids of Lake Victoria are rarely imported from the wild, and only a single species, the Zebra Obliquidens cichlids, Astatotilapia latifasciata, is at all widely traded as a farmed fish. Other species only occasionally turn up, usually at fish club auctions or as home-bred fish sold to the more enterprising pet stores.
The lack of hobbyist literature means that Victorian cichlids are often difficult to identify, and aquarists often need to turn to scientific papers for details. Indeed, because of problems with extinction and hybridisation, as well an overall lack of study thanks to regional unrest, scientists aren’t as familiar with the Victorian cichlids as they are with those of Malawi or Tanganyika. Consequently, there are problems identifying wild-caught fish, let alone tank-reared ones.
Setting up the aquarium
The aquarium is the starting point, and as is usual with cichlids, the bigger the better. The minimum aquarium is one measuring around 100 cm long, 45 cm wide, and 50 cm deep (in US terms, tanks around the 50 to 55 gallon size). More space means more natural behaviour, fewer fights, and more successful breeding attempts. Victorian cichlids should always be kept in group, not pairs; the males of many species will harass or even kill the females under aquarium conditions.
In terms of aquarium styles, you have three basic options: The first is a community tank where different species are living together; these can look lovely, but run a high risk of hybridisation. The second is a breeding tank where only one species is maintained, usually a harem consisting of a single male and several females. This is a good choice for the aquarist who wants to study as well as breed a single species. Finally, there’s the geographical tank that simulates the Lake Victoria habitat with its rocky shores, sandy beds, intermediate zones of sand scattered with big boulders, areas of submerged vegetation, and so on.
Depending on the species being kept, we need to consider the various factors that determine stocking density, such as size, aggression, feeding mode and territoriality.
Rock-dwelling species need a lot of caves, and it is important to create two or more piles of rockwork, so that there are open spaces between different territories. Without such visual barriers, it is easier for one male to take over the entire tank. Provide crevices that are too small for adult males to enter, and these will be used by juvenile fish as safe hiding places. Use a mixture of rock sizes, from boulders to pebbles, so that the rockwork is as complex as possible.
The substrate should be fine sand, since Lake Victoria cichlids like to dig. To prevent piles of rocks slipping and cracking the bottom pane of glass, lay down one layer of sand first, secure this with a gravel tidy, and then arrange the rocks and another layer of sand on top.
Apart from disturbance through digging, these cichlids don’t tend to do too much harm to plants. Vallisneria, Anubias, Ceratophyllum and Crinum all work well and can be used to define territories and provide hiding places. Cured bogwood can also be used. Although not authentic additions to the Lake Victorian tank, PVC pipes can be used to provide additional hiding places, either free-floating or siliconed to a piece of slate for stability. Small or weak fishes will find these especially useful.
Water chemistry and temperature
The waters of Lake Victoria aren’t as clear or alkaline as those in Lake Malawi. The pH ranges from 7 to 9, and the hardness is between 2 and 8 degrees dH. Under aquarium conditions, neutral to slightly basic, moderately hard water is recommended.
Haplochromis latifasciata is often traded as Astatotilapia latifasciata or the Zebra Obliquidens; it’s an aggressive species that should be maintained as Astatotilapia aeneocolor, described below.
Different species favour particular food sources, and among the cichlids of Lake Victoria are species that may be classes as carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, filter feeders, and detritivores. Carnivorous species include some that feed on insects, some on smaller fish, and some that feed primarily on molluscs. Among these mollusc eaters are some that wrench snails out of their shells, while others have strong pharyngeal jaws that allow them to crush and consume molluscs whole.
As in Lake Malawi there are some remarkable specialists, including species that feed primarily on the eggs of other cichlids, stealing eggs or fry from the mouths of breeding females.
Under aquarium conditions most Victorian cichlids can be treated as omnivores. They should be fed in modest amounts, preferably two or three times per day, and their diet should be varied. In particular, some vegetable matter should be regularly provided, in the form of algae-based flake, sinking algae wafers, or softened vegetables such as cooked peas.
The greatest problem with Victoria cichlids is species selection. It’s difficult to create a stable, problem-free community because of variations in size and aggressiveness. This is why I personally prefer to keep these fish in single-species settings, or at most, in tanks with two, carefully chosen species that won’t hybridise and exhibit similar amounts of territoriality and aggression.
The catch-all genus Haplochromis in particular has been the subject of frenzied taxonomic revision, making identification of the species offered in the shops with those described in aquarium books rather difficult. It often seems as if a fish you’re keeping as an Astatotilapia on Monday becomes Haplochromis on Wednesday, and then returns to Astatotilapia by Friday!
Suggested community 1: 100 x 50 x 50 cm
Tanks this size (about 250 litres, 66 US gallons) can house one male and (at least) two females of Haplochromis sp. “Flame Back” and one male and (at least) two female Haplochromis sp. “All Red” without too much difficulty.
Haplochromis sp. “All Red” is probably the same thing as Haplochromis “Purple Red 1” and the two species could be interchanged safely, if you happened to be offered the one species rather than the other.
Haplochromis sp. “Flame Back” is one of the better known and more widely traded Victorian cichlids, and has been regularly exported from the lake's northern shore. It lives in open water areas and feeds on both detritus and phytoplankton, but in the aquarium appears to be omnivorous. Adult males get to about 12 cm (5 inches) and are only moderately aggressive, by Lake Victoria cichlid standards at least.
Haplochromis sp. “All Red” inhabits muddy bays and feeds on detritus as well as algae, including diatoms and blue-green algae. It’s another species that is only somewhat aggressive, and both these species get along better with each other than they do more aggressive Victorian cichlids. Maximum length is about 15 cm (6 inches) in the wild.
Both species are maternal mouthbrooders. Males maintain harems and other than digging the spawning pit where fertilisation takes place, undertake none of the brood rearing responsibilities. Females incubate around 10-15 eggs for a period of about three weeks, at which point the fry are left to their own devices.
Decorate the aquarium with rocks as well as open areas so that all the fish have suitable hiding places. small invertebrates such as krill and mysis are readily accepted, alongside zooplankton such as daphnia. Both species need substantial amounts of plant matter to remain in good health.
Suggested community 2: 120 x 40 x 50 cm
A tank this size (about 240 litres, 63 US gallons) has more length than the one above, and this allows the maintenance of more active and aggressive species. In an aquarium this size, I have maintained for more than two years groups of two different species alongside each other, Astatotilapia aeneocolor and Haplochromis thereutherion. In my tank, there is one male and four female Astatotilapia aeneocolor, and one male and two female Haplochromis thereutherion.
Haplochromis thereutherion is a streamlined cichlid that lives in shallow, open water habitats.
Haplochromis thereutherion is a species considered to be at risk in the wild and is listed on the CARES conservation priority list maintained by the American Cichlid Association.
Basic care is similar to the Haplochromis species mentioned above. It is a slender insectivore that lives in shallow water near the surface and catches preys that has fallen into the water. In the aquarium is relatively unaggressive, by cichlid standards, though males are sometimes a bit hard on incubating females. Provided there are plenty of hiding places this species generally works well when maintained in a harem. Mating takes place in open water, in this regard this cichlid resembles the open water Cyprichromis of Lake Tanganyika, and like those cichlids, Haplochromis thereutherion can be maintained in a large group very successfully. Incubating females swim together in a loose school, releasing about fifteen fry after two weeks of mouthbrooding.
Female Astatotilapia aeneocolor mouthbrooding.
Astatotilapia aeneocolor comes from the satellite lakes of Lake Victoria and the Kazinga Channel rather than the lake itself. It is somewhat similar to Haplochromis sp. “Yellow Belly” but is larger and more aggressive than that species. Despite its relatively small size, typically 10 cm (4 inches) or so, males are very crabby towards each other, and spend most of the day chasing, displaying, or locking jaws with rivals. I have kept multiple males together in a tank 200 cm (over six feet) long, and while the show of aggression was unending, no serious injuries occurred.
Astatotilapia aeneocolor is a detritus feeder with a taste for plant material, but it also consumes insect larvae and small crustaceans should the opportunity arise. Dominant males do a lot of digging, preferably among plants, so robust species should be used, such as Anubias, Crinum and Vallisneria. Once the spawning pit is complete the male invites the female to mate, after which point the female goes into hiding for about 18 days, and then releases up to 14 tiny fry. Females protect the free swimming fry for a while, establishing little territories where they can swim and feed safely. During this point she has a black mask on her snout, perhaps to indicate to other members of her species that she is protecting fry.
In larger tanks, from 150 centimetres (5 feet) the rock-dwelling species become viable choices. These don’t work in smaller tanks because the males defend territories up to a metre (39 inches) square. The tank should be somewhat like a mbuna aquarium, with rocks right up to the surface of the water, whilst leaving some open areas for swimming.
Among the rock-dwelling that might be kept together are the several different Pundamilia nyererei varieties, Haplochromis sp. “Rock Kribenesis” and Haplochromis nubilus.
If you decide to keep these species together, keep an eye open for signs of physical damage. While my specimens are often fighting, I’ve never seen them kill one another. But your own experiences may be different!
All three of these species are maternal mouthbrooders, the females incubating the eggs for up to 20 days. They need plenty of vegetable foods, along with insect larvae, krill, mysis, brine shrimp nauplii, and of course good quality flake.
Many species of Victorian cichlid remain in jeopardy, but at least some of the species extinct in the wild have been maintained in captivity. Aquarists in both Europe and North America began breeding programmes some years ago, and provided hybridisation is avoided, this can at least maintain some of the diversity lost in the wild.
Lake Victoria cichlids offer many of the same points of interest as those from the other Rift Valley lakes. They exhibit a huge variety of shapes and colours, social behaviours, feeding habits and ecology. In the past some generalisations were made and disseminated in the hobby press, often focusing on their aggression or some other problematic area of their maintenance. But this overlooks a considerable degree of variation among them, and even allowing for the fact that many species are fairly boisterous, they remain beautiful, lively, and generally easy to keep and breed.
Re: DSB Questions, FW, Af. Cichlid stkg./sys.
Thanks for the links, they were very informative. I didn't know that Lake Victorian cichlids were that hard to come by.
<Does depend, with one or two species being widely sold but often inbred, while others are hardly seen outside of cichlid clubs.>
I'm going to skip the coral idea per your input
<Wise. While adding a little coral sand isn't a bad idea if you're not growing plants, it doesn't guarantee hard water conditions, so it's a "why bother" sort of thing in many cases. Much better to either add something to the water, or else place a bag of crushed coral in the filter you can clean under a hot tap regularly.>
I do have a question concerning cycling it though. The sand made the water fairly cloudy so I did a straight water change water conditioner, and I'm going to do another water change tonight.
I was planning on using water from my 72 bow so I tested the water and I found out that it was still showing nitrates at 10-15 ppm. nitrites and chlorine at zero.
<All sounds good.>
So I did a 30-40% water change and watched it for a few days and tested it again last night and the nitrates were back to what they were.
I also noticed one of my red empresses were flashing against the bottom occasionally.
<Unlikely because of the nitrate. 10-15 mg/l is a good level for cichlid aquaria.>
For stock I have 3 3 1/2" Red Empress and 7 2" frontosas.
<An interesting combo. Should work, though both are big fish, and space may be a problem in the long term.>
I have been feeding them once a day light feedings and the tank has been running for close to 3 months (I'm using 2 Penguin 350 filters). Should I not use this water to start cycling and just use fresh water and add flakes to start the cycle?
<Oh no, I wouldn't do this. I'd "clone" the filter if at all possible. All biological filters can lose up to 50% of their biological media without a dramatic drop in filtration capacity. So if you have ceramic noodles, scoop out half from the established tank's filter, put them into the filter in the new aquarium, and then transfer some fish across to the new tank to supply ammonia. Should work fine. Moderate the food a bit for the first week, maybe to half rations, but otherwise shouldn't be any noticeable rise in ammonia and nitrite. Given you have two biological filters, moving one filter to the new tank, plus half of the fish, should work too. But that assumes water turnover stays acceptable in terms of oxygenation and distribution of heat, so be careful there. If the Penguin 350 is supposedly able to handle either tank by itself, this should be safe. Otherwise not, and you'd want to replace the missing filter on the donor tank with another filter. Water itself contains little/no useful bacteria so moving it around is pretty pointless. Moving gravel can work if there's an undergravel filter, but otherwise again, it's fairly pointless except for the top half-inch or so of gravel which should contain some bacteria.>