Fish Journal of Philip Steinman.. I keep Lake Malawi Labidochromis caeruleus Cichlids

Last updated 1-14-96
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This fishkeeper's journal is intended to document my joy and lessons learned from keeping tropical fish. In no way do I proclaim to be an expert in this field. The reader's thoughts and own personal experiences will be welcomed feedback. Email me at I will add to this journal as I progress further with my fish. This is a new feature of my homepage, as of 11-25-95. I am now in the process of trying to update things I've learned since I started planning for my aquariums back in the beginning of 1995 :-)

February, 1995
I got reacquainted to the aquarium hobby through the internet by happenning upon the Usenet groups rec.aquaria, alt.aquaria, and sci.aquaria. After reading many posts for about two weeks, I was inspired. For the first time in 12 years I wanted to start a fish tank again. The last time I had fish was back in my high school days when I kept guppies in a 10 gallon tank before I had to tear down the setup and head off to college. I loved my guppies, especially when they had babies. It was a challenge. I awakened early for a couple of mornings while trying to predict which night the mother was going to give birth to newborn fry. I would catch as many as were left and put them in a bowl for a few weeks till they got big enough to return to the main tank.

This time around I decided to go with some fish that would be a little more challenging to make a house for. After reading the faqs and more Usenet posts the decision became easy, cichlids! They are often considered aggressive fish, unlike my old community minded guppies. They required rocks and caves and were more picky about their water conditions like pH and hardness. I never payed much attention to these things with my guppies.

Which cichlids to setup a tank for wasn't as easy of a decision to make. Over 1,000 species of cichlids are found in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. They are much bigger than guppies. A 200 gallon tank was simply out of the question, both financially and space-wise, for my abode. I decided to start with a 40 gallon tank. This would narrow down the field of choices considerably.

March, 1995
I bought some books that were well worth their money. The first book I bought was CICHLIDS by Georg Zurlo, only $5.50 at my local bookstore. I loved looking at the charts on page 12 that gave advice for which community of fish would match what aquarium type, interior specifications, water conditions, and occupants.. (the fish!). Two pairs of West African and/or South American dwarf cichlids could fit in a 24" to 32" tank with plants and a pH lower than 7. Two to three pairs of Central American cichlids could fit in a small community tank of at least 40 inches with lots of flat rocks and a low 7 pH. Up to three groups of smallish Lake Malawi rock dwelling Mbunas could fit in a tank of at least 40 inches with rocks stretching to the top of the tank and a high pH near 8. One to three pairs of Lake Tanganyika cichlids using snail shells could fit in a tank 24 inches to 40 inches with about 3 inches of fine sand and a high pH near 8. Because there were many smaller cichlids originating from Africa, I decided to lean toward African cichlids.

The next book I bought was Dr Paul V Loiselle's A FISH KEEPER'S GUIDE TO AFRICAN CICHLIDS. This book was only $8.49, another amazing deal at my local bookstore. His charts seemed a bit more generous in allocating aquarium space to a group of cichlids. After reading about Lake Malawi cichlid's behavior I became interested in the rock dwelling and mouth brooding habits of the Mbuna varieties and was able to narrow down my field of choices even further. The chart on page 96 showed that only species of Group 4, the Cynotilapia and Labidochromis, usually forgo serious aggression in tanks more than 48 inches long. I was worried that my 40 gallon tank wouldn't be big enough at all for the fish of Groups 1-3, that ideally needed larger aquariums. I would soon start to search the local fish stores for Cynotilapias and Labidochromis cichlids.

To prepare the tank for the fish I set up miltiple filtration systems. I got System 3 undergravel filter (UGF) plates to add biological filtration. A biological filtration system houses nitrifying bacteria that converts harmful ammonia to harmful nitrite and then to benign nitrate. Since cichlids are very sensitive to swings in nitrite and ammonia levels, I decided that an UGF system, along with frequent water changes, would be very beneficial in stabilizing the water quality. I decided to go with the System 3 UGF because it was designed a little differently than the conventional UGF. It features a double tray filter with the bottom tray shapped like a "V" to help gather the dirt and debris from under the gravel. I got some Hagen 301 powerheads to use with the UGF uplift tubes. Powerheads would be much more efficient than airstones at pumping out water and debris from under the gravel. This combination of equipment seemed attractive because the ad claimed I would never have to clean out waste from under the bottom filter again. Supposedly the cichlids digging in the gravel was going to be good for this design of UGF plates. To complete the system I would need mechanical and chemical filtration to clean the tank of the water that the powerheads were sucking up from underneath the UGF. Because I would be building a cabinet to put all my fish equipment in, I decided not to go with the hang on the back of the tank type of filters. I got a Fluval 303 cannister filter that I could put inside my cabinet. This helped control noise and kept the aquarium setup looking a little neater. In my cannister filter I put the traditional pre-filter media of ceramic rings used to trap large particles in the bottom compartment. In the middle compartment I put the carbon to remove the dissolved and liquid waste for my chemical filtration. The porous nature of the carbon provides more surface area, in addition to the UGF and the gravel filter system, for the attachment of the beneficial nitrifying bacteria. The top compartment of my cannister filter houses the foam block to provide mechanical filtering and again, even more biological filtering.

April 1995
Even with this elaborate filter system in place it was going to take several weeks to cycle my new tank. Before the beneficial bacteria could take hold in their tiny ecosystem, I had to go through the typical ammonia peak and nitrite peak before the danger levels subsided. All this time it was going to take in establishing an environment suitable for some Mbuna cichlids gave me more time to get other elements ready for them. I decided to go with crushed coral as my source of gravel. Although fish stores don't recommend it for freshwater tanks the high pH and hardness levels it creates are beneficial for some cichlids. My tap water in LA is around 7.5 pH and crushed coral keeps the tank water near 8.5 pH. It also raises my GH by about 2 points to 8 or 10 degrees. My carbonate hardness has fluctuated between 7 and 9 degrees.

To decorate the tank I went to my local river to gather some rocks. I picked out as many palm size to hand size flat rocks as I could carry in my backpack. Just to make sure there were no parasites on the rocks, I boiled them in a metal bucket on the stove top. At the hardware store I bought some aquarium safe silicone, GE General Household Sealant, and had hours of fun glueing small rocks together to make caves for my upcoming fish party.

After four weeks of cycling an empty tank I was getting antsy for some fish. So, on April 27, 1995 I stopped by a local fish store and bought a pair of Sunset Sailfin mollies to test out the new waters. Low and behold, they lived! For a few months at least, the male died on 10-29-95; the morning after a big water change occurred the day before. (His belly was all bloated up, so I wasn't sure if he was sick or over eating or what.)

June, 1995
Two weeks after my mollies had survived my initial tank break-in, I went shopping for some cichlids. I found a store that had a bunch of mixed African cichlids in one tank. I find it very typical for there to be no descriptions on lots of store cichlid tanks. The shop keeper told me that the yellow ones I was looking at were Electric Yellows. From my books I knew these were Labidochromis Caeruleus. Group 4 cichlids from Loiselle's chart. They could live long and prosper in my small 40 gallon tank, I hoped. I decided to pick out 3 fish that day. This is always a big moment for me, which ones to get. The Yellow Labs were all juveniles about 1 to 1.25" long. I definitely wanted the biggest one in the tank. This had to be a male because his dorsal fin was dark jet black and he was bulkier than the others. Netted him. Next I wanted to try and pick out 2 females. I looked for smaller ones that had greyish dorsal fins on their yellow bodies. I picked out what I thought were two females, only to discover 2 months later that only one was actually a female. This was an important decision to try and get right because my two males often get in territorial squirmishes over who gets to hang out where. The big fish always wins. But, when it's time to eat, they all seem to drop the whole territorial thing and get along fine. Much of the time the smaller male hangs out in a cave I made, that is too small for the bigger male to actually fit into. I've since realized that caves are more important than I once thought they were and that you can't have enough of them with enough different sizes for the fish to swim into.
July, 1995
One day I noticed that my yellow female lab was struggling to swim around. She was not eating much. She remained in the corner of the tank. I was concerned she was dying. Help!

Talked to a guy in the local fishstore. He said, "She's a Malawi? She's yellow? An Electric Yellow? Those are mouthbrooders. Are her gills swollen up? Has she stopped eating? She's pregnant." She's pregnant! I went from sorrow to joy to confusion. How could she be pregnant? I thought she was still a juvenile. She was only an inch long. No, wait a minute. She was 1 1/2 inches long. The other 2 Electric Yellows were 1 3/4 inches. She's gonna have babies. Cool. I just hope she's really not sick and recovers.

August, 1995
Woke up one morning and fed my fish when I noticed that my female cichlid was eating breakfast with everyone else. Hmm. Her gills weren't swollen anymore. She looked very skinny still, but now she was eagerly eating and swimming about for food. What about being pregnant? She did not have the eggs in her mouth anymore. I did not see any babies swimming about in the 40g tank. Wait a sec. Maybe she released them last night and the males ate them all. Where were those babies she was supposed to have? Was she really pregnant? I never saw any eggs. I never even looked close enough in her mouth to really know what was going on. I was ignornant of a great opportunity to learn more about my fish. How depressing. I felt like I took the whole experience of her being sick, then pregnant, for granted. At least I could reside in the fact that she was in good health once again.
September, 1995
I noticed that my female yellow lab looked sick again. Wait a sec. I had gone through this before. Her gills were all swollen up. She was having trouble breathing. Ok. Now be quiet, and watch her. Look in her mouth. She is carrying the eggs in her mouth! Cool. This was the break I had hoped for. This time I was going to be prepared. I would setup a 10g tank for her to go into once she reached her third week or so.

I scooped out some of the coral gravel from my 40g tank and put it in my new 10g tank. I placed some smaller rocks in the 10g. For filtration I setup a Fluval 103 cannister filter and a Tetra Brilliant Sponge filter, which I powered with an old Whisper airpump my dad gave me. I was concerned that the soon to be released fry might get sucked into the intake tube of the cannister filter. I took a spare Fluval foam and cut an opening in the center, where I put the intake tube. This way the foam piece would guard against the intake tube sucking any fry up into the cannister filter. It also acts as another sponge filter.

October, 1995
My female yellow lab gave birth to 11 fry on October 22. At first, I counted 4- then 5 fry. I went out for a couple hours and came back to count 8 fry. The next morning I counted 11 fry. They hide well under the small rocks. I find that the best time for counting them is when they first come out during feeding. I give them Tetra Min baby fish food for Egglayers. Every other day I feed them baby brine shrimp that I hatch from eggs in a 2 liter coke bottle. I try to feed the fry 3 times a day. They have none of the yellow coloring or robust oval body shape of the adults but are still very cute. They are very skinny and take on different shades of grey-brown. One of them was born with only one eye it seems. His left eyeball socket is empty and he is smaller than the rest of the bunch. I have affectionately named him, "One-Eyed Jack".

I left the mother in the 10g tank for a week after she released her fry. The first couple of nights some of the fry went back into her mouth. After the 3rd night I didn't see any fry going back into her mouth. The mom was eating her flake food vigorously again. I put her back into the 40g main tank. The 2 other males apparently had missed her. The dominant male did his shaking mating dance for her. I hoped she would quickly recover from the fasting she had done while carrying the eggs. I wondered if she was going to be pregnant again.

November, 1995
On November 16th, I noticed that my female yellow lab was carrying eggs again. It had been only 31 days since she had released her first successful brood of fry. She was in back in the 40g tank for only about 3 weeks, and pregnant again. These fish certainly don't practice any birth control. She must have recovered fast from her last brood. Her gulls were all swollen up and I could see the white eggs in her mouth when she opened it.

This raised new questions. Where would I put her when it came time to release the new batch of fry? If I left her in the 40g main tank, the males would certainly eat the young. If I put her in the 10g tank with juveniles fast approaching 3/4", they might eat the fry. They would probably at least harass them. What would the mother do to her maturing babies? Should I divide the tank into 2 separate halves? I could dedicate 1 side for the juveniles and the other for the pregnant mom. This would only be a short term solution. With different sets of fry swimming around I would run out of space very soon.

The solution had to be a new tank! A 60 gallon tank. I would place it on the top shelf of the stand I built back in March. I needed 3 tanks to have a reasonable amount of aquarium space if I am going to make an attempt to raise the fry of my cichlids. When questioned by my significant other, I would explain that this is just the final missing piece to my new hobby. She'll understand. With the 40g and 10g on the bottom of my custom stand, the 60g will go perfectly on the top shelf. This would make my 4 foot by 3 foot cube of space stand 6 feet tall. But it is compact and beautiful to look at. It only occupies half the wall space in our spare bedroom. What a showpiece this will be once I set it up.

December, 1995

It was hard to clean the brand of crushed coral I bought for the substrate of my new 60g tank. I rinsed the Carib Sea Florida Crushed Coral through a streaming hose of rushing water. My bucket of coral was still sitting in cloudy white water. The next day I rinsed the coral again. This time I took a scoop of coral in a kitchen strainer and ran streaming water through it until the water wasn't cloudy. I transferred each scoop of coral to the "clean" bucket until I had re-rinsed the entire 50lb bag again. I wasted so much water doing this that I wondered what they meant when they said on the bag that this coral is "pre-washed"- only minimal rinsing required. The generic brand 50lb bag of coral that I bought for my 40g tank didn't have this problem. Once I setup the 60g tank and put the Carib Sea coral in the water, it was still a murky white. Conditions stayed this way for 3 days until my Fluval 403 cannister filter cleared it up. It was not until 8 days later that the sediment had dissolved to the point where stirring up the gravel would not make the tank cloudy.

With these nuisances out of the way, now I could start enjoying the benefits of the coral. Carib Sea claims their coral has up to 7 times more naturally occurring strontium than other brands. It has unsurpassed buffering ability for my cichlids. Over 30 times more soluble than dolomite. The natural fractal surface area has a porous structure, combined with aragonite and high magnesium calcite microcrystalline content. This provides up to 40% more surface area in the 1 to 10 micron range, which is the domain of the beneficial nitrifying bacteria. It's aesthetically pleasing because it has a minimum deviation from the mean particle size. This precise grading promotes uniform water flow throughout the filter bed with low head loss. Its' high sphericity resists packing, channeling, and the formation of anaerobic "dead spots".

On December 13th, I did a water test on my newest tank. The pH of the 60g tank came in at 8.5 on the Tetra Laborette test. The GH was 8 and the KH was 7. Ammonia read at .25 mg per liter of water. "Critical for fish if permanent. Slight disturbance of nitrification." The tank was going through the standard ammonia spike in cycling. The nitrite level tested at 0.

It took a week longer than I had anticipated in setting up my new 60g tank. I originally wanted to jump start the cycling of the tank by putting a large amount of the coral substrate from my 40g into the 60g. My 40g tank had established a nice layer of beneficial bacteria on my original coral. But, I backed out of this good idea. Would the new coral cloud the water and harm my established tank? This was unproven coral. I didn't know if it had any impurities. In the end result, I probably should have done this. But I didn't want to risk anything with my beloved 40g tank. Instead, I took some rocks out of the 40g tank and the sponge filter out of the 10g tank and placed them in the 60g tank to cycle the new tank faster. I ran the sponge filter with an Aqua Clear 401 powerhead. I also took the carbon from my Fluval 303 in the 40g setup and placed this in my new Fluval 403 for the 60g tank. This would provide a small bacteria colony for the new 60g tank. A couple days later, on December 13th, I innagurated my 60g tank by catching 5 juvenile cichlids from my 10g tank and placing them into their new roomier home. With no plants or any other fish in the tank, there was so much open space. These guys appeared kinda lost as I watched them hop about before turning out the lights.

The 5 juveniles were doing well in their new 60g tank. One Eyed Jack was happy too. The layout of the tank was almost completely bare. I had some small rocks in the center of the tank where the fab five hung out. I suppose they felt lost at the far sides of the tank with no rock cover. On the back wall of the tank I attached with suction cups some Penn Plax Cliffs & Caves. These plastic rock imitation pieces have nice shapes and look cool on the box they came in. In the tank, however, their colors are kinda goofy, like a waxy green and red. The natural real rock I found is much more pleasing. I'll have to make it an upcoming project to glue, with silicone, some more caves together from the real rock I collected from my local river.

I decided it was time to fish out the remaining 6 juveniles from the 10g and rejoin them with their 5 siblings in the 60g. I took all the plants and rocks out of the 10g tank to make it easy to catch them without stirring up the debris on the bottom of the tank. This time I caught them easily. I did a 40% water change and vacuumed the crushed coral on the bottom. Tomorrow I will place my pregnant yellow lab in the now empty, but clean 10g tank.

The next morning I figured the 10 gallon tank had settled down enough from the water change. Finally, I would net the female yellow lab from the 40g and put her in the 10g where she would release her fry. I took out some potted plants and rocks from the 40g tank to try and make it easy to catch the female. This didn't help enough though. I chased her around with two nets for 10 minutes. I chased her into a rock cave, setup one net on the entrance, and then tried to scare her out with my second net. Two fish swam right into my net. I tried to release just the male but the female got out first. After I finally caught her and put her in the 10g tank she was a little stressed so I left the room for an hour. When I came back she had released one of the fry from her mouth. This worried me. Did she swallow some of the others? Had she released other fry in the 40g tank the night before? I looked carefully in the 40g tank several times that day. I didn't see any fry hiding beneath the rocks. Did the males get to them and eat them first? Two hours after I had put her into the 10g tank I counted 2 fry hiding under small rocks. Eight hours later I counted 3 fry. The next morning, on December 17th, 1995, I counted 5 fry. OK, so I put her in the 10g tank too late. I had probably stressed her with that long net chase that she was ready to release right away. Maybe she knew that the 10g tank was setup as my fry tank and she was waiting to be put in it? She had released 11 fry the last time I had put her in there, October 22. It seemed that she knew what to do more than I did. I was happy there were live babies hiding about. I had 5 fry to raise from her second birth. She kept them in her mouth since November 17th, a total of 30 days, before releasing them. The water temperature in both tanks read a steady 78-80.

January, 1996
After doing a New Years water change I counted 8 fry in the 10g tank. There are so many small rocks and plants piled around the tank that I just couldn't make a final accurate count of how many babies the mom cichlid had from her December 16th release. I changed 35% of the water and did a thorough gravel vacuuming by first taking out all the rocks and plants. This is when I could finally count all the baby fish with an unobstructive view. I put mom back into the 40g tank with the other 2 male Electric Yellows, the female Sunset Molly, and Mr. Plecostomus. The dominant male went crazy. He did his whole shake down welcome back mating ritual. After awhile he left for the other end of the tank. The other male cichlid was ready to offer his mating ritual high fin display with brilliant colors. When the dominant male found out what was going on he would chase the other male around in a tight circle until the smaller fish gave up and headed for cover. Then the big male continued to court the female.

I noticed on January 13th that my female cichlid is carrying eggs in her mouth again. It appeared as if she was having trouble breathing, but on closer look her gills are swollen and she's got a mouthful of little white blobs. It looks like she could hold a lot more than 8 eggs in her pouch there. I wonder how many of them will make it out into baby fry? It's been exactly 4 weeks since she's released her 2nd set of fry. Based on her last term of pregnancy she should be ready to release new fry in 32 days, so that's February 14th. Will we be having Saint Valentine's Day cichlids? Stay tuned.

I did the 30% water change on all three tanks. Everything went quick and smooth with my Python hooked up to the kitchen sink. Tonight, Sunday, January 14th, I went for the non-detailed water change so I could get everything done in an hour. I turned the sink faucets on full blast to create as much suction as possible through the clear Python hose. I emptied 30% off the 40g, then 10g, and then 60g. I tried sucking it out of the undergravel lift tube but no gunk came out. All I got was clear water, so I went back to the vacuuming the gravel method.

The biggest mess I have to deal with are the plants I have in the 10g and 40g tanks. One plant I have, called Anubias, grows like a weed under my 2 40 watt lamps. Everytime I try to anchor a stran of it inside a plant pot, the fish get at it and it ends up floating on top of the water. It does fine there but it grows into a massive bunched weed. The strans underneath don't get as much light. They turn greenish-brown and have to be removed during each water change. It tends to break up and dirty my tank when I stir it up for the water change. My Fluval 303 handily cleans up the entire tank in about an hour. There's so much of this plant that I put a nice clumpy stran of it into my 10g tank from time to time for the baby cichlids to nibble on. When it's growing healthily it keeps the algae from forming on the sides and top of my tank. My 2 African Sword plants do not fair nearly as well, but they are still alive after two months. I keep them in the pots they came in. The Pygmi Chain Sword and the Hornwart look almost as healthy as when I got them and have remained pretty much the same size.

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