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Cichlids: A Knowledge Base .: Beginner's Basics .: Keeping Aulonocara Peacock cichlids

Keeping Aulonocara Peacock cichlids


Keeping Aulonocara Peacock cichlids


Aulonacara, also known as the “Malawi peacocks”, have been a favorite among African cichlid keepers for many years. They are relatively peaceful if kept properly, and males develop some of the most beautiful color to be found in freshwater fish anywhere, making them highly exotic looking. What follows is an attempt to describe how best to keep these fish in the home aquarium.

One of the considerations should be their diet. This should be varied, contain some vegetable matter, but be rather rich in animal protein compared to what you would feed more herbivorous fish like mbuna. Be careful – when we say ‘animal protein’ we are referring to protein from aquatic animals (fish, invertebrates, zooplankton, etc.). Meat from warm blooded animals (eg: beefheart) is not recommended for African cichlids, even carnivores like peacocks. They haven’t evolved to be able to digest it properly because there is nothing like it to eat in their natural environment. It can cause them serious health problems. If you are using store bought fish foods check the ingredients and nutritional stats on the packaging to ensure the protein content is at least 40% and from suitable sources. Tankmates should ideally have similar dietary requirements to your peacocks as trying to satisfy different dietary requirements in the same tank without causing problems can be tricky, and puts further constraints on what you can feed your fish.

Another important consideration in keeping peacocks is the water quality you can provide and maintain for them. The water should be hard and alkaline, as in the African rift lakes. The PH can be anywhere from the mid-7.’s to the mid-8.’s, but it should not fluctuate. A stable 7.5 is better than a PH that quickly swings from 7.8 to 8.4 and back, for instance. As with all African cichlids the water should be kept well oxygenated and very clean, with no measurable ammonia or nitrites, and nitrates not exceeding 40 ppm (less is better). The temperature should ideally be in the 76-80 range, and stable.

With respect to the aquarium size required to keep peacocks at their best, this is a topic that deserves more consideration than we can cover fairly in this article, but here are a couple of basic guidelines:

  • A 3-foot tank minimum for a breeding group of a single species of peacocks (eg: one male and three females).

  • A 4-foot tank minimum for an all-male mix (more on that later).

  • Tanks larger than 4 feet always afford more flexibility.

There is one very important remaining factor to address for peacocks to live healthy happy lives, to show great color and to breed for you: tankmates. Much of the remainder of this article will revolve around this subject.

A question frequently asked is “what can I keep with my peacocks?” Let’s refine that a bit to “what should I keep with my peacocks?”. There are quite a few species of fish Malawi peacocks can co-exist with, but to have them show good color and to breed them requires more careful selection of tankmates. For starters, tankmates should have the same diet and water quality requirements as the peacocks. But there is much more to selecting tankmates than that.

To color up to his absolute best a male peacock needs to be king of the tank. That means no fish more aggressive than the peacocks should be kept in the same tank. This generally rules out Malawi mbuna, the larger and more aggressive Malawi haplochromines (“haps”), cichlids from lake Victoria and the surrounding basin, and many, many more.

Some suggestions of what can be kept with Malawi peacocks:

  1. More peacocks. Some important details are in order here. If you wish to keep multiple males to have more color in the tank, then an all-male peacock setup is the way to go. In such a setup you would select one male each from different looking peacock species, but no females. If females are present, males may fight, possibly to the death. This can be true even with males and females of different species, because female peacocks all look pretty similar and each male tends to view any female as one of his own species. Also because of this, if you keep more than one species of male peacock in the same tank and there are females included it is quite likely the species will cross-breed. The matter of hybridization is not the focus of this article; suffice it to say it is strongly suggested to avoid stocking selections that make it likely to happen.

On the other hand, if you DO want to breed peacocks, obviously some females are required! In such a mix only peacocks of the same species should be included, for reasons mentioned above. This should consist of one male only (again, for reasons mentioned above) and at least two, preferably three females to disperse the male’s attention. A lone female may be harassed excessively, leading to fin damage, stress, and in the worst cases death. Although you are limited to one male with a breeding mix, a male peacock in breeding dress shows particularly vibrant coloring!

  1. Some of the smaller and more peaceful Malawi haps can also make suitable tankmates. Some examples are species of the genus Lethrinops, Otopharynx (eg: lithobates), some of the smaller and more peaceful Placidochromis (eg: electra), and some of the smaller and more peaceful Copadichromis (eg: azureus, etc.). There are more, but there are also a lot of Malawi haps that will be too large and boisterous for the peacocks to be at their best, even among the above mentioned genus. For instance Copadichromis borleyi or jacksoni get too large and aggressive for most peacocks’ comfort. The same can be said of Placidochromis milomo, Nimbochromis livingstonii, and many more. This is why it is important when considering a potential tankmate for your peacocks to get the scientific name of the fish (trade names are often unreliable or meaningless) and research that specific species’ potential size, temperament and other requirements. Note that many of the haps that are suitable tankmates temperament-wise also present the risk of cross-breeding, as though they themselves were just another species of peacock. This is because many females of the smaller hap species are rather similar in appearance to peacock females. An all-male peacock setup including some of these hap males (but not females) is an option.

  2. Some catfish with similar water requirements make good tankmates for peacocks, notably certain synodontis species from lake Tanganyika (eg: multipunctatus, petricola)

There are a few possible choices beyond the above guidelines that may work due to the particular nature of specific fish species; one example is Altolamprologus calvus (or Altolamprologus compressiceps) from lake Tanganyika. These cichlids are slow enough not to outcompete the peacocks for food and tough enough to withstand some abuse from the peacocks without usurping the peacock’s place as ‘tank king’. It is generally not recommended to mix peacocks with fish from outside of Lake Malawi however A. calvus/compressiceps, along with the aforementioned Synodontis species, are examples of exceptions. Yet further examples are certain species of ancistrus that don’t get too large and tolerate lake Malawi water parameters, eg: the so-called bushy-nose and rubberlip plecos. As a general rule though, it is strongly recommended to do some research before attempting any un-proven combination. There are many more poor combinations than good ones. The employees at your local fish store may not be the best equipped to give advice on this subject, despite their attempts to give an impression otherwise.

A limited number of peacock species deserve special mention for being a bit larger and more robust than the rest. These include Aulonacara jacobfreibergi variants as well as Aulonacara sp. Lwanda. If kept in a large enough tank (preferably 5-6 feet) these peacocks can usually stand up to the milder of the mbuna species and somewhat larger, medium-aggressive hap species such as Copadichromis borleyi. They will breed, show fairly good color, and not put up with too much abuse from such tankmates. Still they have their limits and should not be housed with overly aggressive tankmates. They simply provide a little more flexibility to your stocking options.

It should be mentioned that there is always an element of variability in the form of the individual fish’s character. It is not unheard of for a peacock (of any species) to turn out to be a terror to tankmates it should theoretically get along with, or alternately to be a ‘wimp’ when it should be tank king. One can’t plan for rogue personalities; if it happens you just have to adjust your tank to it, one way or another. Initially, tankmates should be selected on the assumption the fish will more or less be typical of their species in temperament. (ie: don’t assume an Aulonacara baenschi will rise to the occasion and be fine with an Melanochromis auratus just because you wish it so – you’re in for a letdown).

All other things being equal, an alpha male peacock of good stock will trump a subdominant fish, a runt or an otherwise poorly bred fish. Stock quality is very difficult to judge in juvenile peacocks that are not yet showing color. If buying from a breeder ask to see the parent stock. Availability can also be an issue. The male peacocks’ splendid coloration only develops as they mature, and this has the indirect effect of making them somewhat uncommon in the general fishkeeping hobby, despite their appeal to African cichlid keepers. This is in part because many stores won’t stock juvenile fish that are not colorful, fearing they won’t sell. If you do get hold of some quality juvenile peacocks they will reward you as they transform. If you happen to come across some full grown peacocks for sale you can expect them to be offered at premium prices.

Everything discussed here, including diet, water quality, tank size, tankmates and stock quality, will have a bearing on whether a male peacock will develop his very best color for you. While it may seem like a lot of complicated compromises are necessary to bring out the best in Aulonacara the reward is worth it. If you’ve done all this right there is no reason your peacock(s) should not develop eye-catching colors and swim about proudly in the open with their beautiful finnage on display. There is also a certain satisfaction in knowing you’ve provided just the right environment to bring out the beauty in these fish, and that you’ve selected only suitable tankmates in order to achieve this goal. In a sense it is a feather in your cap as an aquarist.





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