The Aulonocara Aquarium

Aulonocara are the most colorful freshwater fish. they’re so popular amongst aquarists because of their flamboyant colors and their peaceful behavior. Today we are talking about the Aulonocara group of Lake Malawi cichlids. What is an Aulonocara? Well the term is used both as a group of cichlids that means many genus together. And as a genus there actually a geneus called Aulonocara . In the group though there are only 3 genus which are, as you guessed it Aulonocara, Lethrinops is the second and Tramitichromis is the third.

These cichlids have been grouped together based on their DNA and their physical characteristics. The common name for this fish in the hobby comes from its flamboyant colors and its habit of showing them off. It is called the peacock. Usually though when we talked about peacocks we’re only talking about the genus and not the group. How to recognize these fish? Well first of all the male’s colors are amazing and the females colors well. . . let’s just say they’re fifty shades of color between white and black. It’s a lot easier to recognize an Aulonocara than an mbuna because their shape is similar within the genus and the group. Fun fact about the Aulonocara :the word took its roots from the Greek language. Aulo means flute and Kara means face so that raises a lot of questions about what a flute looks like and helps us not at all to identify this fish. As with all African cichlids, they have a complex social behavior.

Within a single aquarium you will have a hierarchy between the fish, so the dominant male will always be more flamboyant than the others. With age though all the males in my experience have been known, if they’re high quality enough, to color up. Even in my breeding colonies I have noticed with age that all my males end up coloring to their full potential but the dominant ones will always show off more, their fins always be bigger than the others but the dominated ones will be gorgeous as well. As for agressivity, well compared to the other tropical fish of America Asia and all that, yes they are aggressive and it is to be taken into consideration. African cichlids are never compatible with other fish. A few exceptions apply obviously. Compared to other African cichlids the Aulonocara are a peaceful group. They will be able to defend themselves if ever they’re attacked. They’re peaceful but they’re not pushovers.

I’m going to list three kinds of tanks that you can put on Aulonocara in with which they are compatible. The first tank is a breeding tank. If your goal is to breed these cichlids well, you’re best off keeping them in a species only tank to avoid hybrids. Keep a ratio of one male for 2 to 3 females and always keep them in groups of 5 or more to reduce aggressivity. This fish in the wild is not aggressive and is pretty nomadic in the aquarium. You’re restricting this fish to an a lot smaller volume then it’s used to in the wild so you have to take precautions to avoid aggressivity. In my breeding facility I usually keep my cichlids in a ratio of 1 to 2 males for a whole harem of females. In my yellow regal aquarium, the fish show, aquarium fish, awesome fish, fish advise sp. aulonocara stuartgranti maleri“stuartgranti maleri”,you’ll notice I have one male for multiple females. If you have a Starbuck, a fish that will breed and breed and breed and breed, whether you have one male or two it will not change anything. He will breed regardless. In my Lemon Jake tank I actually only wanted to keep 2 males for the five females I had but before I was able to, I wanted to take out the most dominated one and put him in another tank so he can gather his strength, gather his confidence and then be able to sell him. Before I was able to do that they started breeding meaning that this is now a breeding colony. I take a male out now it might disrupt the whole social construct that they developed for themselves so for now I’ll leave the three males in there. This is one of the least impressive tanks if your goal is just to breed any african cichlids.

Check out my video about Mbunas. Maybe that one will impress you more because the males and the females can often be very colorful. Next up is the Aulonocara show tank. This is where you will only put males of the Aulonocara group or genus in the same aquarium. When you create this aquarium the males are a lot calmer than they would be in the breeding tank since the hierarchy that will develop in the tank is a lot less intense than in the breeding aquariums. All the males will end up with flamboyant colors. In this aquarium every fish you pick is a piece of art. You will shop around, you will look for that perfect fish of that species, you will look for it, getting on waiting lists just to get that one fish and it will be worth it.

The third kind of aquarium is the Malawi show tank. In the Malawi show tank you will mix Aulonocara , Haps, which are another group from Lake Malawi and certain species of Aulonocara. One of the limitations of this aquarium is the size so technically Aulonocara and Haps’s are very compatible together but some of these haps will get very big so some in some cases if you have a fish in the 75 gallon tank, it might not be compatible for instance the Dimidiochromis compressiceps. This fish we grow up to 12 inches. You don’t want him in your 75 gallon tank, he will wreak havoc. You can also mix certain omnivorous Mbunas with Aulonocara, the best example is the Labidochromis Yellow lab cichlidcaeruleus, the Yellow Lab. This fish is technically more aggressive than the other Aulonocara but less aggressive than most Mbunas in Lake Malawi. Aulonocara are open water swimmers. They don’t live in schools and are not territorial. They will live on the sandy beaches and around the big boulders. Most of these sandy / rocky habitats between 5 metres and 40 metres in lake malawi are inhabited by Aulonocara. Of course, I say these are not territorial but there are still some exceptions. One of the species of the Aulonocara, the Aulonocara jacobfreibergi as you saw in my lemon Jakes  are a more aggressive cichlid and they have been seen to defend a cave or territory in the aquarium.

You technically don’t need a lot of decorations to keep  Aulonocara. Big coral rocks will do. If you have a Jacob cichlid, aulonocara jacobfreibergi jacobfrebergi, make sure to add a couple of caves or some of those rocks you have little holes in them that they can dig under and make a cave. If ever you find that your fish are aggressive in the aquarium just add more decorations. Plants are not necessary in the Aulonocara aquarium. If ever,for aesthetic reasons you want to add some by all means please do. They won’t change anything for the fish. If you have a breeding tank actually, the little babies when the mother spits them out in the aquarium they’ll hide in the plant so it’ll protect those little ones but for the show tanks just go for it if you like it.

So for substrate get eight pH augmenting sandy substrate.It doesn’t have to be very fine but they have to be able to sift it through their gills because in the wild that’s how they eat. They will also remake your aquascape, so if ever you want to make a little mound of substrate in one place forget about it. They will remake it to their liking. I’ve actually once seen them work together as a team with other haps to take all the sand from one side of the aquariums and bring it to the other. The first side was just on the glass in the end it was an incredible feat even though my aquarium looked ridiculous. . . and it was the demo at the entrance of the store because they liked to redo the aquascape so much. Make sure you give them a at least two inches of substrate.

The minimum tank size for Aulonocara is 55 gallons. In this aquarium you can have 10 to 12 fish in it. personally I prefer 75 gallons and up for Aulonocara. I find that in a 55 gallon because it’s so narrow the fish seem stuck. The bigger the better for the aquarium if you have a 5 or 6 foot you’re going to see your fish go from one end to the other they’re going to be swimming all day long. It’s a lot of fun.

Aulonocara like all other cichlids from Lake Malawi are mouth brooders. This means the female will hold the fish in her mouth for up to 4 weeks before spitting them up. When the female is holding you don’t necessarily have to isolate her. You can just let her go in the aquarium. This is better for her because for the 4 weeks she is just swimming around. If you just let her go in the aquarium she’ll spit out her her babies and you will have a few survivors just like in my lwanda tank that you can see here. I mean it is my bread and butter but sometimes I might miss a batch or two. Nobody’s perfect. Keep in mind that African cichlids will breed every few months for the rest of their lives. If ever you miss a batch don’t feel bad about it, you’ll get another one.

Aulonocara take a year and a half to two years to reach the full mature size. When they reach about one inch, you’ll start seeing maybe a male or two start to color up but it’s no indication of the ratio that there is in your aquarium. It’s really when they get a lot of older and over time that they will all end up coloring up. so it’s very hard when they’re juveniles to be able to sex them accurately. Because of the time it takes to grow them and the possibility of getting a female in the end, if you’re looking for a show tank you’re best off buying already adult colorful male cichlids. These can be found on the market. Also it’s happened to me sometimes in my growing facility, I’d see one inch fish in the batch of fifty and I see it all colorful so I bring it in front and in the store I figure:”oh maybe he’ll keep his colors.” They never do. I just end up putting him back in the back because he loses his colors automatically as soon as he’s with bigger fish because, well ,suddenly he’s not the big fish in the aquarium, he’s two inches.

Another important subject that we have to talk about when we’re breeding fish and that we hate talking about but we’re gonna do it anyway. It’s hybrids. To get Aulonocara hybrids is very easy if you’re not careful. So be careful! I always suggest the use of species only tanks. Technically, putting different species of Aulonocara together like a stuartgranti, a jacobfreibergi,

Lethrinops
lethrinops, they should not breed together. If you have multiple specimens of  each fish, but remember what color I told you the females were, it’s hard to tell them apart. So even if you get some breeding of these fish you’re not gonna be able to to know what female is holding and if she’s holding from the right male because the females look alike. It takes one and a half to two years to start seeing color in a group. if you’re growing cichlids chances are you’re not like me and you don’t have hundreds of aquariums. You can just put one species per tank as if you have many species in the same aquarium you won’t know until one or two years later that you have hybrids. Another way to avoid hybrids is to, and this sounds very obvious, not buy hybrids. Certain sources are less reputable than others and have difficulty identifying the fish. If you’re just buying yellow peacock, well there are two three kinds of yellow peacocks on the market available. If the store is not able to properly identify the male how good you think they were at identifying the females. Just buy from reputable sources, from stores that you can trust.

Another mix that is frowned upon, is within the same species ,so it’s not a hybrid, but still a mix of origins for example the Aulonocara stuartgranti is found throughout Lake Malawi and each place that you find this fish it has a different color and I’m not saying from bright yellow to dark yellow, I’m saying they picked out their colors out of the rainbow. So if we mix different origins the colors of the babies will be distorted and you will lose the quality of the origin. As aquarists it  is our responsibility to protect the diversity and complexity of nature and when we are creating our mini ecosystem. Another mix of peacocks I’m going to talk about is the lab made hybrid. The two popular species on the market are the Aulonocara firefishAulonocara firefish and Lee Aulonocar OB these were created in a lab and are not line bred cichlids. These are different species mixed together to give a fish that looks like Aulonocara . it has the same shape of the genus Aulonocara but it has colors that are not available in the wild. Some purists, as they call them, would categorically refuse to integrate these fish. Personally I sell them. I breed them and I’m not ashamed of it. It’s a pretty pink fish and it’s very popular among the kids. I mean what little girl doesn’t love her little pink fish, right! If you want to only have the purity of Lake Malawi you don’t have to add these in. As for me, well you pick your battles, right when you’ll be shopping for your Aulonocara, you will find that there are many different qualities on the market. Certain stores will import from Asia where you will find two inch fish that are fully colored. They will have like a hundred beautiful two inch colored males. . . seriously within weeks these fish will lose their colors. What happens is that they add hormones to the aquarium where they’re growing these fish. So these male hormones will stimulate the colors will stimulate the fin growth also you’ll notice the two inch fish has a long fin that’s just not natural. So let me ask you this when your fish breed,are the babies all males all the time? No! You have two inch females too in that batch. They have been given male hormones so they will take on male traits such as the color and the elongated fins but, as with the males with time they will lose all these colors They will keep the fins though, Those don’t go away. Using hormones when you’re growing fish to stimulate such growth in such a development will affect their longevity and just general health. The best way to buy high quality cichlids is the same as the best way to not buy hybrids and is to buy from reputable sources. A good rule of thumb: It’s two inches, fully colored the store only had them for a week it’s probably on hormones.

In the wild Aulonocara feed in the substrate so they will stay stationary and wait for the inverts to move. They have sensitive sensorial pores and they will feel the movement. once they feel that with their quick reflexes they’ll grab it! In the aquarium, let’s face it there’s a lot less inverts in your substrate than in the lakes Feed Aulonocara omnivorous high quality pellets in the morning and omnivorous high quality flakes in the evening. When you’re shopping for fish food make sure that it’s marine protein and not mammal protein and also make sure that there’s kelp or spirulina in the recipe. if you want to give your fish a treat in the morning instead of feeding pellets, once a week you can give them some krillmysis or brine shrimp that are frozen. Now you’re ready to pick your fish.