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Setting up a Lake Tanganyika Cichlid Aquarium

The cichlids from Lake Tanganyika are some of the most vibrant and colorful fresh water fish available, which makes them very popular for aquarium owners everywhere. While some species from this African lake can do well with fish that originated from other parts of the world, most enthusiasts agree that it is better to create a tank dedicated to Tanganyika cichlids.

A typical Lake Tanganyika aquarium
Lake Tanganyika Aquarium © Konstantin Dankov

Creating an aquarium that simulates Lake Tanganyika can be challenging, but it will provide a much more natural environment for the fish, which will help them thrive. Many people consider a Lake Tanganyika aquarium to be an excellent alternative to a salt water set-up; it contains all the diversity and colors of marine species, but without the hassle and difficulty associated with a delicate reef system. Some people even refer to this lake as a freshwater reef because of the many similarities in the looks of fish and environment.

Whenever creating an aquarium that is meant to simulate a particular body of water, it is useful to learn a little about the habitats that exist within. The tank decor should reproduce a micro-habitat, whilst the water conditions should match, in order to keep the fish as happy as possible.

Lake Tanganyika map

About Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika is the second largest (by volume) and second deepest fresh water lake in the world. It is also the longest, at 676 km in length. At its deepest point, this lake drops to a depth of 1470m, with an average depth of 570 m. The deeper areas of the lake have little or no disolved oxygen, and do not support permanent fish life. It is thought that the lake was formed when three smaller lakes, containing perhaps 12 distinct species joined. As in the case of Lake Malawi, water levels were in constant flux, regularly isolating and combining the fish, allowing these ancestoral lines to split into the 250 or so cichlid species found today.

Lake Tanganyika shoreline
Lake Tanganyika shoreline (Burundi) © Dave Proffer

With parts of the lake in four different African countries, it is an important source of both food and water for millions of people living in the areas surrounding it.

As stated above the lake is home to at least 250 different species of cichlids, many of which are available for aquarium hobbyists. The cichlids tend to live mostly along the shoreline, and in relatively shallow waters, going down to around 180 meters. The water in this area of the lake typically ranges from 23-31 degrees (aquariums should ideally be kept from 24-29 degrees), and is considered medium hard with a dH ranging from 7-11. The pH of the lake ranges from 7.8 to 8.8, which is typically going to be more Alkaline than tap water in most areas.

Essential Equipment

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The basics of aquarium maintenance are taken as read. For more general information on aquarium management see the articles here. But there are a few specifities to an African Lake tank. The tank should be as large as is possible, be adequately heated, well illuminated and filtered, preferably with a good external canister filter. Undergravel filtration is impossible to maintain in a rocky tank. As with all aquaria, water quality is paramount. It should be kept at a steady temperature ranging between 24-29 degrees Celsius, with hard water (200ppm+ carbonate hardness), and a pH of between 7.5 and 9.0. Keeping the temperature at a safe level is easy, but the maintaining the correct alkalinity can often be more difficult, especially in soft-water areas. Do not add fish until the conditions have been tested for a few days in a row, and found to be within the safe range. Frequent testing for the first month is a good idea, until the levels remain stable.

A Natural Setup

Lamprologus ocellatus

When planning your Lake Tanganyika aquarium, you'll need to consider ways in which to simulate the natural conditions of the lake as far as possible, as experienced by the species you intend to keep. The size and set-up of the tank needs careful consideration because it can not only have an impact on the overall health of the tank, but is essential for a natural looking environment, within which the fish will feel at home, and hopefully reproduce. Cichlids are by nature aggressive fish, and in a small space smaller individuals can be bullied and killed if the tank is not decorated and stocked correctly. Unlike a Lake Malawi cichlid aquarium which can be 'overstocked' to spread aggression evenly, a Lake Tanganyika tank should have less individuals and territories for all.

Generally, Tanganyika cichlids are either bottom-dwellers, or open-water dwellers, and only a really large tank will be able to accomodate both types. The bottom dwellers need a Rocky Set-Up - a lot of rocks are positioned to create caves, crevices, ledges and other natural areas for the fish to swim and hide. Territories will be formed, so these sites should be positioned about the tank. Large snail shells on the tank floor create homes for smaller shell-dwelling species (like Lamprologus ocellatus, left); the lake bed is littered with thousands of shells of a large snail Neothauma tanganicensis). The smallest Tanganyikan cichlids are in fact the shell-dwellers, typically under 2 inches in size. Species like Neloamprologus multifasciatus, N. similis and Lamprologus ocellatus can thrive in a 15-20 gallon tank, suitably decorated with at least one snail-shell for each fish (prefarbly more), a sand substrate and some small rocks.

For this set-up, tank depth is less important than floor area. Depending on the size of the tank, it is preferable to create multiple different rocky zones, which will provide clearly defined territories, and provide a lot of interest in the tank. Polystyrene tiles should be positioned under any stones that are touching the tank base, and great care must be taken to prevent damage from unstable piles of rockwork.

An Open Water Set-Up should be rock free. A deeper tank with less surface area will provide more open water for swimming than a shallower wide one. The largest species (such as the 3 foot long Boulengerochromis Microlepis) need the enormous tanks only found in public aquaria.

The Substrate (for either a rocky or open water tank) can be made of a thin layer fine gravel or sand. Too deep allows anaerobic areas to develop and should be avoided. Using crushed coral is a good idea if the tap water in an area isn't naturally alkaline enough. The crushed coral provides a natural buffer to keep the pH levels where they need to be.

Plants are not widespread in the lake Tanganyika itself, and in fact only really occur at the mouths of the rivers that flow into the lake. They can help contribute to a healthy environment for the fish though, and are always pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately the hard alkaline water and propensity of many cichlids to dig make growing many plant species almost impossible. Vallisneria and Java fern are two commonly available plant species that may do well in this type of aquarium, but also floating plants like duckweed. For additional diversity, high quality artificial plants are also possible. If using live plants, they should be added after the initial setup and before adding the fish.

As with all aquariums, it's best to have your tank up and running for 4-7 days before adding any fish. Taking this extra time to set everything up properly will help ensure the fish are healthy, and make the maintenance of the tank much easier in the future.

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Adding the Fish

While it might seem like it has taken a long time to get to this point, it is worth the wait. Adding fish to the aquarium is certainly one of the most enjoyable parts of the process, and it is also one of the most important. Choosing fish that can live together without problems is extremely important. With over 250 different species of Lake Tanganyikan cichlids to choose from, aswell as catfish (most notably Synodontis multipunctatus), and shoaling killifish (Lamprichthys tanganicanus), this process can take some research, as many species predate each others fry, eggs or even adult fish.

The size of the tank obviously dictates how many fish can be added to the tank. Some species are best kept alone, but usually you can choose a variety of different species that will prefer different regions of the tank. If space allows, choosing fish from more than one biotope found in the lake produces a very active, diverse and ultimately pleasing aquarium.

The Surge - The top meter or so of the lake is known as the surge habitat because of all the waves. It is possible to add water flow near the top of the aquarium. If this is done, it is possible to add in goby cichlids which thrive on the highly oxygenated water located at the very top of the aquarium. *These species of cichlids are more difficult to maintain than most other types, so only experienced hobbyists should attempt this. Shoaling species such as Tanganyikan lampeyes (killifish) are also possible, or even species of rainbowfish if the killies are not available.

Neolamprologus leleupi The Rocky Shore - The shores of the lake can have any rocks ranging in size from giant boulders to tiny gravel; there are many different species in this area. It is important to note that some of these prefer large rocky areas, whilst some prefer smaller rocks. Take note of the preference of each fish before adding it in. There are numerous popular species that could inhabit such a tank, good examples include the Lemon Cichlid, Neolamprologus leleupi.

The Littoral zone - many areas within the lake have very sandy bottoms as a result of thousands of years of erosion. Due to the fact that the water is so alkaline, snail shells don't break down, which results in huge piles of them littering the sandy floor, which some fish use for spawning sites.

The Mud Floor - This biotope is typically found near the areas where rivers flow into the lake. This area is filled with shrimp and other organisms, which some cichlids eat. This is an area that is difficult to properly simulate in an aquarium, especially without dedicating the entire aquarium to this one biotope.

Pelagic Waters - The majority of the open water in the lake, neither near the bottom nor the shore. This area is filled with a variety of other fish which may feed on cichlids in the environment, though there are some species of cichlid, that thrive in this area. Larger tanks can do well simulating the pelagic waters biotope.

Benthic Waters - The deepest areas of the lake has some very interesting species of fish, including a diverse set of cichlids. Due to the lower oxygen and low lighting some of the fish have developed sensory organs that allow them to thrive in this nearly total dark environment. This is another difficult area of the lake to simulate for an aquarium, so only experienced hobbyists should attempt it.

A well planned out tank can have a wide variety of different fish from Lake Tanganyika. When set up and maintained properly, the tank can thrive for years with only normal water changes and high quality filtering. Taking the time and effort ahead of time to create the proper environment will help ensure the fish are healthy, vibrant and live for a long time.








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Fishkeeping Facts and Tips

Low light plants Java moss, Java fern, and several of the Anubias species all do fine in low-light conditions. That is not to say that they do not thrive with stronger lighting, but in an aquarium with a lot of floating plants, or one with timid fish that prefer a dimmer tank, these plants are very useful indeed. All are epiphytes; that is to say they need not be planted, and can be attached to stones, bogwood or just left free floating


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