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Introduction To Cichlids

cichlid xs 13569664Cichlids are one of the most popular types of freshwater aquarium fish available and they are also some of the most beautiful. Biologists believe there to be as many as 3,000 different species of cichlid in existence, though only roughly 1,300 have been identified. This number makes the family Cichlidae one of the largest families of vertebrates on Earth. Cichlids come from various countries all over the world where they can be found in many disparate environments - from the brackish waters of India to the rift lakes in Africa as well as the waters of Central and South America. If you hope to cultivate a cichlid tank someday, or are simply curious about this interesting family of fishes, it is wise to learn the basics.

Basic Cichlid Information

discus 000014836719xsmallCichlids belong to the family Cichlidae in the order Perciformes. These fish are known for the wide range of patterns and colors the various species display. Some species in this family, like the Convict Cichlid, exhibit bold stripes while others, like the Discus Fish, have vibrant colors and striking patterns. Cichlids range in size from less than 3 centimeters to over 1 meter in length but most tend to be medium in size. In addition to displaying a variety of sizes, cichlids come in many different shapes. While most species have laterally compressed bodies – like the angelfish and discus fish – others, like the Julidochromis, have long, cylindrical bodies.

Though the many species of cichlid vary in shape, size and coloration they all share one trait. In cichlids, the lower pharyngeal bones are fused to form a single structure from which the teeth grow. This arrangement results in two sets of jaws – the true jaws, or mandibles, and the pharyngeal jaws. These jaws make it possible for cichlids to eat a variety of different foods. While some species of cichlid are herbivores, a majority of them are carnivores and omnivores and they need strong jaws to eat crustaceans and other fish.

Native Habitat and Distribution

africa xs 20734852Cichlids are found in bodies of fresh water all around the world. For the convenience of aquarium hobbyists, cichlids are generally divided into three categories based on their origin. The three categories of cichlid are African cichlids, South American cichlids and Central/North American Cichlids. The Central/North American cichlids are more commonly referred to as New World cichlids. Out of the 1,300 species of cichlid that have been identified, only around 120 belong to the New World group. Most of the fishes in this category can be found in Mexico and throughout Central America. There is one species, however, that is native to the United States – the Texas cichlid.

African cichlids are the most popular species among cichlid enthusiasts because they are extremely colorful and are also known to display a variety of interesting behaviors. The cichlids belonging to this group are found largely in the lakes of the Great Rift Valley. These lakes include Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. These three lakes alone are home to more than 1,000 different species of cichlid. The second largest category of cichlids is the South American group of cichlids, which includes around 200 species. These fish are generally found in the warmer waters of the Amazon River basin.

While African, South American and New World cichlids are the most common there are a few other places in the world where cichlids can be found. In Asia, several species of cichlid originate in the brackish waters of India and Sri Lanka. Because these Asian cichlids are not widely available, many aquarium hobbyists are unfamiliar with them.

Popular Species

African Cichlids – Peacock cichlid, Bumblebee cichlid,  Buffalo Head cichlid, Electric Blue and Electric Yellow cichlids, Frontosa cichlid, Red Zebra cichlid and Mbuna cichlids

South American Cichlids – Angelfish, Pike cichlids, Oscars, Discus fish, Acaras, Apistogramma, Firemouth cichlids, Uaru cichlids

New World Cichlids – Rams, Texas cichlid, Severum, Rainbow cichlids, Convict cichlid, Jack Dempsey cichlid, Oscars, Dwarf cichlids, Parrot cichlids, Acaras, and Keyhole cichlids

Cichlids in the Home Aquarium

angelfish 474339Because cichlids come from such diverse habitats all over the world it is very important that you, as the aquarium hobbyist, design your cichlid tank around the needs of the species you have chosen. Some cichlids, like the angelfish, are relatively easy to care for but others, such as the discus fish, are very sensitive to changes in water quality and can be difficult to maintain. The most important thing you must be aware of if you hope to cultivate a cichlid tank is that cichlids tend to grow much larger than most other freshwater fish and, thus, require very large tanks. Cichlids can also be territorial and aggressive so it is recommended that they be kept singly or in species-specific tanks.

Before you set up a cichlid tank, research the particular species you plan to raise to determine the ideal water parameters. The more closely your tank reflects the natural environment of your cichlids, the more likely your fish are to thrive. While performing this basic research it is also wise to look up compatible tank mates for your species of cichlid. Some species like rams and dwarf cichlids can be kept in large community tanks with other freshwater fish but others, like most of the African species, need to be kept alone. Once you have designed and set up your tank with the proper pH, temperature and water hardness you will be ready to cycle the tank and introduce your cichlids.

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