An 160 liter miniature m'buna biotope

by Antonis Roussos

My first - accidental - visit at MCH functioned as a challenge for a deeper and more complete knowledge of the Mbuna flock. I saw photographs and systems that impressed me much more than what I had set up till then. Thus, I decided to follow the advices and the information found in this site and create something that I would like because it would be natural, concrete and - to a degree - self-sustained. Many months passed with me reading and browsing the Internet and each day something new about these amazing little fishes and their world was revealed to me. The search for knowledge and information became a real hobby and my interest for the species of fishes from lake Malawi increased by the day. At this point I would like to drop a line for the important help that dear Andreas Iliopoulos gave me. He did not hesitate to share with me information and much of his knowledge about Mbuna.

At the beginning of 2004 it was evident that I had acquire some knowledge and the decision was made. I would definitely create a tank which would provide them with conditions as close as possible to the ones in their natural habitat. Needless to say, the fish would be those intensely colored, really charming M'buna.

The aquarium I finally laid my hands on was an 160 liter tank, nothing impressive and not the most suitable size for these fishes. Thus the first decision already had been taken, there would be few and not particularly aggressive fishes. I believe that even with a relatively small tank you can enjoy the hobby of aquarium fishes.

The tank brand is MP and I cannot say that it completely satisfied me. Its plastic lid is manufactured in such a way that water run on the exterior crystal each time the cover is moved. The crystal is of good quality and I haven't noticed any "deformation" of the fishes. I supplied it with an 150 W Ebo-Jager heater and I began to search for a suitable and durable filter. I finally decided to use the Eheim Ecco 2235 which  filters all the water in a 160 litres aquarium 5,5 times per hour. In my opinion this is the bare minimum turnover especially for an aquarium without any plants in it. Beyond this point I started to deal with the aquascaping. I admit that this is one of the most beautiful moments of the hobby.

My first attempt to collect stones took place on a Sunday noon in a near mountain. Stones were too brightly coloured and sharp. The light colour would discourage the fish to show their coloration in all its greatness and their bodies could be scratched on the sharp edges. It was not what I wanted. Thus, I got rid of them. The second attempt however was particularly successful.

A good (and extremely patient) friend of mine came with me in the region of Karvounoskala (Attica). There I found precisely what I needed: Many rounded stones in dark colours. The trunk of the car was full in no time. I must note here that my first impression that I had collected too many stones was wrong. The stones were exactly the quantity needed in order to "build" my African reef which was supposed to reach the surface of the water.  After I applied some pieces of styrofoam (1,5cm thick) on the bottom of the tank I disinfected my stones using some chlorine. When they were rinsed with enough water and dechlorinator, I began to place carefully one rock over the other stabilising the structure with 100% pure silicone. For two months I was trying to place it in the aquarium in such a way that would make the best use of the little available space I had in my tank. The structure was amphitheatrically built, that is to say taller at the sides of the tank in order to create a better sense of depth. The next and more important objective was to create caves as hiding places for my fish. I invested a lot of time to create as many as possible hiding places and dark corners where even the feeblest fish could find shelter and peace.


This is what I regard to be 50% of an African Rift Lake biotope tank. The remaining 50% is sand.

At the same time 15 kilos of sand were disinfected with chlorine and were cleaned meticulously. When I wasn’t working on any of these tasks I was trying to learn as much as possible about the behaviour of the fishes of lake Malawi and the conditions that prevail in their seabed. My main source of information was - again - MCH.

And finally, the moment had come. My "reef" was ready, the caves were more than 15 and it was time I add sand I bought from a hardware store (cost 2 euros. The sand was added simultaneously with the water in the aquarium and covered the rockwork revealing a very beautiful spectacle. At this point I had to wait for the small particles of sand to precipitate. It took 15 days for the sand to settle down completely and let the water be crystal clear again. It was time to turn the filter on, in order to begin the nitrogen cycle.


As soon as the sand was added the water became milky with tiny particles floating everywhere.

Six days after the addition of the sand, most of it has now settled and the water is considerably more clear although not entirely yet. You can see the rockwork which is essential to any M'buna tank.

Fifteen days later the water is crystal clear and it is time to turn the filter on and start the nitrogen cycle.

After two weeks of filtration the aquarium was ready. Off-hand measurements of water showed "African" measurements (ph8, Gh 12, Kh 16). The first "traces" of algae began to make their appearance on the rocks and it was clear that the first fish could start to swim in there.

The choice of species for such a small tank is not easy and - after long discussions with Andreas Iliopoulos - it became apparent that there had to be some rules which took tank size seriously into consideration. These rules were: 2-4 females for each male, species showing mild aggressiveness and suitable size. Considering all the above the list is the following:

3 individuals of Labidochromis Caeruleus sp. ` Yellow'

3 individuals of Pseudotropheus Socolofi

3 individuals of the genus Cynotilapia

The other option calls for less species but a nice color combination:

3 individuals of Labidochromis Caeruleus sp. ` Yellow'

7-8 Pseudotropheus demasoni

This list is sorted by introduction order (which is identical to aggression order). Care would be taken to introduce smaller fish while moving down this list.

Synodontis sp.

The first fish to be introduced was a catfish of the Synodontis genus which was sold to me as a Synodontis Multipunctatus. However, after a search I made it was obvious that this was a hybrid. A slight possibility that this is a Synodontis Njassae (the only species of Synodontis that lives in lake Malawi) still exists. Three young individuals of Labidochromis Caeruleus sp. ` Yellow' followed so that they can get used to the structure of the tank and be ready for the more aggressive species which were to follow. next types. And then... came the Greek summer time which is particularly hot and doesn’t "allow" large fish imports in our country. Thus, I had to wait till the beginning of autumn in order to acquire the next fish in my list.

The Synodontis which entered my tank first adapted immediately. It used almost all the caves of the tank and was coming out in the open very often, even during the day. Then, after one month, the Labidochromis sp. "Yellow" were added. After the newcomers were in, the Synodontis found the cave he liked most and made it its home. The three little fishes were particularly thin when I put them in the aquarium but they were active and they began to nibble on the algae on the rocks with a lot of pleasure.


This is the dominant male in my tank today, shown only minutes after its introduction in my tank. As you can see, the fish was underfed for a long time. It is a shame for any petshop to keep fish in such a poor condition.

The same fish after just one month. I am sure you can see the difference ! It didn't take too much and it didn't take that long to transform it into a well fed, really active, full colored fish.

While I write these lines I have kept these fishes in my tank for two months and their physical appearance has dramatically improved. The dominant male, which happens to be the largest fish in my tank, now shows a really bright yellow color. When I got it I assume it was aged about 6 months old. I feel it is about time to stop feeding the fish the way I do to avoid the accumulation of fat in their bodies. I guess that large and frequent water changes are much more beneficial to them than just tons of food.

This is how the tank looks today. The presence of green algae on the rocks adds to the overall appearance giving it a more natural look. Fish love to nibble on it.

Suddenly my aquarium was all green. No, I did not add any plants, it was simply green algae which probably found an ideal environment for maximum growth. In the meantime I had added more rocks so that the fish feel more comfortable, and they do so since they swim all over the tank. At this point I should report that I came face to face with the "Floating Algae", a monocellular algae species that hovers in water and multiplies tremendously fast. Unlike the coat of green algae on my rocks which I love, this green thing grew so fast that after three days I couldn’t see the fishes in my tank anymore. This problem was caused by bad quality activated carbon that contained phosphor, bad quality of lighting (common fluorescent bulbs) and a long lighting period. Change of the carbon in use, better quality bulbs designed for aquatic use, shorter lighting period and daily changes of water gave me the solution of the problem.


My tank after an Algae Bloom. The water became green and although it will not harm the fish, it definitely doesn't add to the look of my tank.

Now the water in the aquarium is crystal, the algae stays on the rocks and the fish appear healthy, active and happy. I change about 20% of the water every week and the fishes are fed with algae, pellets, flakes and frozen food. One day per week I don’t feed them at all. The lighting period is 9 hours and the light comes from two fluorescent tubes; a Sera Blue Sky Royal and an Aqua-Glo (30w each) so that the light doesn't contain too many green wavelengths (check out: ‘All About Aquarium Lighting’ article) and I won’t have to face such type of "outbreaks" again.

Close up of my rocks covered with green algae

This target of this project to create a tank which would offer the best possible home for my fish, assimilating the environment of lake Malawi. As I get closer to this target I feel happier with my tank. I have to admit that I had never imagined an aquarium filled with just sand and rocks. This moment I seek the next species to be added in it and I enjoy it more than ever.

This shot was taken from the side panel of the tank so you can see the rockwork in detail.

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