Tanks Teeming With Tanganyika Tropheus, Terrible or Terrific?

Posted by Aquatropic Staff on January 11, 2024

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Tropheus Cichlids predictably come from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa, the largest of the famous “African Rift Lakes” that supply the worlds aquarium hobbyists with a seemingly endless variety of gorgeous, interesting, (and frequently aggressive) Cichlids. There are several of these rift lakes, but the other one you've probably heard of is lake Malawi.

In North America, the importation of live fish from east Africa likely started somewhere in the 50's and gained popularity and volume in the 1970s. The fish from Tanganyika were obviously beautiful, but also proved to be well suited to aquariums. Tropheus can be strikingly colored, often dark banded fish with light spots and some with gorgeous splotches of brilliant color. They are very hardy, take well to processed foods and many of them reproduce prolifically in the home aquarium, even with other fish in their genus. It's easy to see why Tropheus popularity skyrocketed after their discovery. What is the catch? Well, they are territorial, and the smaller the space is, the more territorial they can be.

In the wild, Tropheus Cichlids have relatively small feeding ranges, probably only a few feet in diameter. Their breeding ranges can be three times that large. These fish are predominantly herbivores, and as such, this feeding range is vigorously defended as the aufwuchs it grows is their primary food source. (Aufwuchs means basically the stuff that grows on the surfaces underwater and when we're talking about it as a food source, it encompasses the microbes / small inverts that feed on it too). Basically, these fish have been naturally selected for the aggression and physical strength it takes to defend their algae farm for countless generations.

The question here is in relation to how do we keep them in captivity without losses due to aggression? The answer to this is multifaceted. First and foremost, start with the biggest aquarium you can afford and fit into your space. We don't suggest attempting a Tropheus tank with anything less than a 55-gallon aquarium, obviously the number of fish you can keep goes up as the aquarium gets bigger. In the case of the 55 gallons, we'd keep no less than 12, but no more than 20; less than 12 means there aren't enough fish to distribute the natural chasing that will happen, more than 20 will be too crowded. Bigger groups will work even better but should have a bigger aquarium. If you need to add fish at some point, remove everything from the aquarium, build new rockwork, and add all the old fish and the new fish back together.

The second part of this is just that, to add all your fish at once. You can mix Tropheus species if you do it when they are all small and do it at the same time. It will be nearly impossible to add more fish to this aquarium later on. A better option for variety in the display would be to just select different color morphs of the same species. There are a bunch of different looking Tropheus moori, as well as Tropheus brichardi.

Third on this list is to use an impressive amount of rock in the display. The wild habitat of the Tropheus is the very rocky lake edge where there are countless places to swim and hide. This allows the feeding grounds of each individual fish to actually overlap all the neighbor's algae farms because there are so many nooks and crannies for stuff to grow in and fish to hide in or escape through. Emulate this in your display. Don't worry about the fish hiding, they're so active that this won't be an issue unless you don't have enough fish, and some are getting bullied into hiding all the time.

Water quality wise most Tropheus will be unbothered by most locally available water. Obviously, you want to address any chlorine or chloramines in your water, as is the case with all aquariums. Most tropheus available these days come from aquaculture facilities and are adapted to a wide range of pH, hardness and even temperatures. If you find a wild group for sale, you'll want to tune your aquarium's water to look more like their wild home. Maintain a relatively high pH, between 8 and 9 would be ideal. Wild specimens will do best in somewhat soft water, between 10 and 20 degrees of hardness. Water temperatures should be in the low 70s Fahrenheit. Both wild and tank raised fish will appreciate an environment with enough nutrients to grow some natural food, but not to much as to foul water quality; try to keep nitrates under 15ppm, but never zero. Regular water changes remain an important part of aquarium husbandry, even if you're trying to grow algae.

Feeding Tropheus genus cichlids is actually a bit too easy. They'll eat anything and their systems are adapted to eating mostly algae; some estimates of this have them at almost 90% of their diet being green. In the aquarium, we need to try and get them as much green matter (and fiber) as possible, while limiting the amount of protein and fat they receive. This means foods like bloodworm and beefheart are off the menu, for all but the rarest of treats. Opt instead for foods like Nutramar's Algae and Color Boost Shots or Gamma's Vegetarian Diet frozen cubes. Feeding this way will ensure your fish stay happy, healthy and show their best colors. Also, the more algae that grows on your rocks, the better. They are very effective grazers, so if you have enough of them, algae should never be a problem.

In regard to rearing some of your own, feeding this vegetarian diet is important. If you have a large group, and they are well fed and happy, it will be hard to stop them from breeding. Spawning will happen over a flat rock or open bottom area; females will take eggs into her mouth where they will be fertilized. She'll carry up to a dozen or so eggs for about a month before they hatch. The babies will be large enough to take brine nauplii, aufwuchs and microworms. Even after the fry are free swimming, Tropheus genus Cichlids are pretty good parents. With that being said if you want most of the babies to live in an aquarium this densely populated, you're going to need to remove them to a rearing tank, and this can be a challenge. Removing the mother means she loses her place in the pecking order, with predictable aggression consequences if you return her to the system.

Do you want a tank teeming with Tropheus? It's possible and makes for a dynamic display; these fish are very active, and populations will change as some babies make it to adulthood, they'll even move around sand and small rocks! They are aggressive with each other, but in the end, this is part of what makes their displays exciting. Just follow our few steps to limit aggression and take good care of your tank, and you should have an interesting display for years to come!