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Cichlid tanks must always be kept clean to optimize your fish’s growth and potential. And what better way to help achieve that than to have bottom feeder fish that naturally keeps Cichlid tanks clean. We have prepared a list of great Cichlid bottom feeders that will do the job right.
But before we give you the list of species that love to clean Cichlid tanks, we’ll try to explain why you need them first.
What Are The Benefits Of Having A Clean Cichlid Tank?
Cichlids are very sensitive to toxins in the water. These substances are nitrates, plus the more toxic nitrite and ammonia.
If you have a clean tank, your Cichlids will have the following advantages:
Benefit #1: Less incidence of diseases
The most obvious benefit to a clean Cichlid tank is avoiding all the possible diseases that may infect your fish. These include ich, dropsy, hole-in-the-head disease, fin rot, swim bladder disorder, and velvet.
While some of these we mentioned aren’t that hard to treat, they can be a hassle to you and of course, to your fish. What’s worse is that they can be recurring diseases if you can’t get rid of the causes properly.
Cichlid bottom feeders love to eat substances that would normally create ammonia in your water. These may include leftover food like pellets, worms, and crustaceans off the gravel, sand and stone at the bottom.
Benefit #2: More color
Having colorful Cichlids is one indication of good water quality. We’ve mentioned in our post “This Is Why Your Cichlid Is Turning White“ that inadequate water chemistry causes Cichlids to become dull, pale, or dark. Because you have Cichlid bottom feeders that clear away the bad substances, your fish will have cleaner water that will help them show off their coloration more.
Benefit #3: Easier breeding
Ask any Cichlid keeper and they’ll tell you that when their water quality improved, their Cichlid bred like crazy. For those wanting to breed and keep fry healthy, good filtration and cleaning are the keys. Cichlid bottom feeders help with the latter.
It makes you think that Cichlids might have some common sense as parents to prefer a clean environment for their offspring. Hmmm….
Benefit #4: Less general cleaning for you
You might be doing a monthly or bi-monthly general cleaning of your tank where, aside from water changes, you clean off algae from your rocks and leaves.
The species we list below not only clean the bottom of the tank but also glass walls, leaves of plants, and decor as well. It might take a couple of weeks or a couple of months, but once they get going, your aquarium will be spotless.
Benefit #5: You add variety to your tank
Who says that Cichlid tanks should only contain Cichlids? Your colorful and curious Cichlids may be the centerpieces of your tank, but you can also keep dither fish to keep the peace. And you also have Cichlid bottom feeders to keep the cleanliness of your tank. That in itself is an almost complete ecosystem that mimics your Cichlid’s natural habitat in the wild.
Those additional species make your tank beautiful, plus, they serve their purpose.
Benefit #6: Crystal clear water
A clear tank is a beautiful tank. It’s attractive and nice to show off. That’s always a plus.
You’ll get these benefits from your Cichlid bottom feeders once you understand what they are and how they do what they do.
What Are Bottom Feeders?
It’s easy to say that fish are bottom feeders just because they occupy the lower portion of your tank. But that’s not all they are.
Bottom feeders are ‘cleaners’ or scavengers that thrive on detritus, algae, leftovers, or other substances in your tank that you would normally clean out because it pollutes the aquarium. They live on the lower part of the water column and can burrow themselves under the substrate.
Just because a fish likes to graze the bottom of the tank doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bottom feeder. It has to actually perform the cleaning. And they do this with the help of some unusual characteristics such as a ‘sucker mouth’ that helps them latch onto your tank walls, barbels that help them smell or taste food, or flat bodies (that make them not look like a fish).
What Are The Best Bottom Feeders For Cichlid Tanks?
What bottom feeders can live with African Cichlids? We have to admit, there’s not a lot to choose from. But with the right technique and right species, you’ll surely get the right bottom dwellers.
The best bottom feeders for Cichlid tanks are those that:
- thrive in the same water parameters as your Cichlid
- get along well with your Cichlid
- are big enough not to be eaten by your Cichlid
- are easy to maintain and won’t make your aquarium a lot more complicated.
What’s fascinating about Cichlid bottom feeders is that they don’t all have to be fish. They can be other water creatures, too, and we have included them in this list.
- Ancistrus sp.
The Ancistrus is arguably the best algae eater especially for African Cichlids as it can adjust to the water conditions required. It is a nocturnal South American freshwater fish that lives an average of 5 years. It’s sometimes called a Bristlenose or Bushynose Pleco but is in fact NOT a Pleco (although it belongs to the same family). The name refers to the tentacles that appear on its adult nose.
It’s those tentacles that scare Cichlids like Peacocks and Mbunas away. Needless to say, it can stand up for itself. And that makes it perfect for a Cichlid tank. Choose only one for your Cichlid tank and go for a size that your Cichlids won’t be able to gobble up (preferably about 2 and a half inches long at least). It is very common at fish stores and comes in spotted gray-black or yellow-gold.
It lives on algae, leftover food (pellets, etc), and other substances mixed with algae. It’s a thorough cleaner (best maid service you can find) with its sucker mouth. It only grows to about 5 inches at maturity.
The only downside to Ancistrus is that it’s sensitive to ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates (keep those nitrates below 20ppm!). So if you’re putting this fish ahead of your Cichlids, make sure your water is properly cycled already. But if you’re adding it to an already established Cichlid tank, hide it behind a plant since African Cichlids can be pretty testy when it comes to newcomers.
The semi-aggressive Synodontis Catfish can hold its own in a Cichlid tank. And why not, when these species also (usually) come from Lake Tanganyika? That eliminates the need for a lot of adjusting in a Cichlid tank.
There are many species of Synodontis and not all of them live in hard water. Take note of the Pygmy Synodontis (Synodontis petricola) which grows up to 5 inches and the Cuckoo or Spotted Catfish (Synodontis multipunctata) which grows up to 10 inches. They both like higher pH and live on an omnivorous diet of algae and meaty food.
The famous Upside Down Catfish (Synodontis nigriventris) is another option and can live in softer water (6.5pH and up).
- Clown Loaches
Though often debated, Clown Loaches can be kept with Cichlids successfully if they’re introduced at the juvenile stage. They should be bought as a group of 6 and more as they’re very social. This characteristic is what makes them really fun to watch.
Clown Loaches are good with Cichlids as both species like warmer waters of about 80° F. They also grow to be about 12 inches so they’ll be left alone by bigger Cichlids such as Oscars. If you’ve got a big tank, consider the Clown Loaches.
- Nerite Snails
Nerite Snails are great algae eaters if that’s what you’re going for. A couple of them are enough to clean a 55-gallon tank. They also have nice patterns on their shells and adds to the aesthetic.
But keeping Nerite Snails may be a hit or miss with most African Cichlids. If you have Shell-dwellers, German Blue Rams, Haps, Electric Blue Acaras, or Peacocks, the snails will most likely thrive. A Mbuna or Lab might eat them.
Nerite Snails lay eggs everywhere, and they may be unsightly for some. Just scrape them off or let them fall off after a couple of weeks. These eggs don’t, however, hatch on freshwater tanks so there won’t be an infestation problem if you’re concerned about it.
- Common Pleco
For those people looking for bigger Cichlid bottom feeders, the Common Pleco has the size you seek (more actually). They are usually kept with Oscars and other bigger Cichlids.
Their size is their biggest advantage and disadvantage. These armored cleaner fish get along well with Cichlids, but they can grow up to over 2 feet in their lifetime.
As with all Plecos, the Common Pleco thrives on algae and other plant matter such as vegetables. Don’t forget to supplement its diet with some variety so it can stay healthy.
Unfortunately, Common Plecos get lazier as they get bigger. When they’re older, they might make more waste than clean it, so keep this in mind when shopping for Cichlid bottom feeders.
So, some of these fish may act more like a boss than a janitor, so observe them closely within the first few weeks of keeping them with Cichlids. We also do not recommend bottom feeders that may become feed themselves to Cichlids, such as Amano Shrimp or other smaller fish.
If you are interested in learning more about your fish behavior, check out the links below:
How To Take Care Of Cichlid Bottom Feeders
Yes, they eat leftovers and would rather be left alone. But you should also give your Cichlid bottom feeders a good life. Don’t worry, though, as bottom feeders are rather easy to take care of.
Tip #1: Feed them if there’s not enough food
Sometimes, your tank doesn’t produce enough algae for your little algae eater. You can either solve this by extending the light time of your aquarium by an hour each day or drop an algae wafer for your fish from time to time.
You may also put in a piece of zucchini, cucumber, or carrot (they can be boiled or blanched) but you have to remove it after a maximum of half a day. This is to avoid ammonia buildup.
Tip #2: Provide them with lots of hiding places
Cleaner fish love to graze, but they also love to hide. Having lots of decorations, rocks, and plants will keep your cleaner fish safe from particularly aggressive Cichlids. You can provide pipes, tunnels, and hollow enclosures as some prefer these.
Driftwood is also good if you use a bit of it. It is especially helpful to the Ancistrus as eating tiny amounts of wood can help it with its digestion. Too much driftwood in the tank, though, will lower your pH.
Plants also provide good hiding spaces but stick to those that your Cichlid bottom feeders will not uproot. Examples of these are Vallisneria and Anubias. You can also look up our list from our blog entry “This Is Why Cichlids Destroy Aquarium Plants” for more, plus tips and tricks on how to keep them successfully.
Tip #3: Turn off the lights at night
For your nocturnal cleaner fish, it’s best to provide a safer environment while they’re looking for their food. Turning off the lights at night will relax your Cichlids and let them ‘sleep’ (we discuss Cichlids ‘sleeping’ in our post “Are Cichlids Active At Night?“) while the cleaner fish look for food.
Tip #4: Acclimate your cleaner fish
One big hurdle, though, of getting cleaner fish for a Cichlid tank is the drastic change in water parameters particularly the alkalinity and hardness. Most cleaner fish like the Ancistrus come from waters more fit for other freshwater fish. Thus, you have to drip acclimate them.
Some pet stores offer cleaner fish that already live in a Cichlid tank or have gotten used to living in a high GH tank. You can ask about them first before looking for anything else.
The key to getting good bottom feeders for Cichlid tanks is to plan and prepare from the get-go. Know how big your fish are going to get, what tank you’ll need, what parameters balance out their needs, and what plan B you can turn to if things go wrong.
Even if you have cleaner fish in your tank, it doesn’t mean you’ll stop cleaning altogether. Cleaning is your job. You should always follow your maintenance schedule and keep testing your water to look for irregularities. Cichlid bottom feeders are just complementary to your maintenance work.
Additionally, bottom feeders for Cichlid tanks will work great even with other freshwater fish as long as they’re socially compatible.