How to Setup Rocks for African Cichlids?

There’s a reason why African cichlids have grown in popularity over the past years. Multiple reasons, I would say, primarily:

  • Astounding diversity of colors and patterns
  • Hundreds and even thousands of species and subspecies to choose from
  • Different sizes and temperaments, making them fit for various tank sizes and setups
  • Unique behaviors in terms of reproduction, social interactions, and overall personalities

When it comes to accommodating and caring for African cichlids, however, things are not as simple as they might seem. These aren’t quite the beginner-friendly fish that most people hope for. African cichlids are more difficult to care for since they require pristine water conditions, personalized diets, strict feeding and cleaning schedules, and carefully-chosen tank mates.

But if you can handle them, African cichlids can be very rewarding in the long run. Especially seeing how they can live up to 10-15 years when given proper care in a stable and healthy environment.

When it comes to African cichlids, to accommodate them in their tank is first to create the ideal setup. African cichlids rely mostly on rocky environments to carry out their lifestyle, but which rocks are the best for them, and how should you craft their habitat? Let’s see!

Do African Cichlids Need Rocks?

Yes, most species of African cichlids require rocky setups, especially Malawi-sourced fish. Tanganyika and Victoria cichlids will do better in more open tanks, but they too require rocks, caves, and other structures as hiding spots. The presence of rock formations achieves 3 things for cichlids:

  1. Provide protection – Rock-dwelling cichlid species like Mbunas will use rocks as hiding and resting spots. They will rarely go to the water’s surface since they will spend most of their time near the substrate. African cichlids rely on rock formations and structures like caves and crevices to find shelter and food in the form of rock growths like aufwuchs. A well-crafted and personalized rock structure will keep the fish calm and comfortable, sheltering them from aggression and cichlid-specific violent episodes.
  2. Provide territorial delimitations – Male African cichlids showcase such a drastic territorial behavior that it often hinders their ability to coexist within the same setup. Even more, interestingly, the males rely on environmental cues to mark their territory’s limitations. In other words, male cichlids use various rocks and ornaments around their habitat to mark their territory. Providing them with rocks different in shape and size will help them better limit their territory’s boundaries.
  3. Provide breeding grounds – Rock-dwelling cichlids use caves as breeding grounds since it keeps their eggs safe from other adult cichlids. The male will often guard the entrance to the cave until the eggs hatch, in the case of egg-laying species. On the other hand, Mouthbrooders keep the eggs in their mouths until they hatch. But the females require hiding areas to retreat to when harassed by males or needing some chill time.

So, yes, rocks are a pretty big deal for African cichlids, especially Malawi-born species, since these require heavily on rocky environments.

What Rocks do African Cichlids Need?

The ideal rocks for cichlids need to encompass several distinct qualities, mainly:

  • Contain calcium carbonate to boost water pH
  • Come with a porous surface to promote the growth of healthy microorganisms like nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria
  • Maintain their composure over the years

So, what’s the best rock to use for your cichlid tank? There are actually a handful of options to consider:

  • Limestone – This is among the most popular tank rock, thanks to its overall presentation. It comes in a variety of options, including small and large pieces, skeletal-like structures, and even giant blocks with caves and crevices passing through. Limestone is basically calcium carbonate compressed from skeletons and shells of various sea creatures over millennia. This type of stone will increase the water’s pH due to the calcium dissolving in the liquid over longer periods of time. If you want to speed up the process, consider using limestone powder in addition to your rocks.
  • Lava rock – Lava rock does 3 things better than other rock options. It comes with beautiful rusty-brown or red shads, it is extremely hard, and it has a porous surface. This type of rock is the result of molten stone meeting the cool surface of a sea or ocean. This is a hard and durable rock, providing a natural and colorful look that will enrich any aquatic environment. Just make sure you prepare the rock before adding it to the tank. Lava rock can sometimes come with sharp edges that could hurt your cichlids if they rub against it. Which cichlids are known to do at times.
  • Sandstone – This time of rock is a great option if your goal is to boost the water’s pH. Sandstone comes in amazing layout variations, allowing for inventive tank setups with plenty of caves and holes for your cichlids to swim through. The only problem would relate to inferior-quality sandstone, which may dissolve faster in the water due to a higher clay content. Sourcing your sandstone from trusted sellers is key in preventing that.

The good news is that the options are basically limitless when it comes to tank rocks. You can get them in various shapes, sizes, and structures, depending on your tank’s layout, your fish species and size, and aquascaping goals.

Just make sure you assess their composition, hardness, and porosity level before getting them. You should also make sure they are safe for your cichlids. Polish all rugged or pointy surfaces if necessary to prevent injuries.

How do You Set Up Cichlid Rocks?

Deciding on the ideal rock for your cichlids is only the beginning. Next, you should figure out how to lay out the setup. In this sense, you have several aspects to consider:

  • The overall goal – You can either resort to a strict utilitarian setup, where looks don’t matter as much as utility or go for aquascaping. The latter will involve more creative thinking while ensuring the stability of the rock structure at the same time. Depending on your goal, you will have to choose a specific type of rock with a specific size and structure. Figure out your goals and pick the rocks that fit your vision.
  • Stability – This requires you to abide by the laws of physics. Place the wider, larger rocks on the bottom and the smaller ones on top. Check every rock before deciding whether the structure is stable enough to prevent any unwanted accidents.
  • Create multiple openings – The purpose of the tank rocks is to provide cichlids with caves, crevices, and a variety of entrances and exits throughout the structure. Make sure that the rock structure is fluid enough to allow cichlids free circulation around the tank. They should create multiple hiding spots whose size should match your cichlids’ size.

As a side note, I’d like to address a fairly popular point that I’ve encountered on various fish forums. Many people suggest securing the rock structures with a binding substance like silicon-based glue. While it’s true that such an approach would stabilize the rock system, I would argue against it. You see, African cichlids use rocks as geographical reference points when establishing their territory.

Once their territorial boundaries have been set, they will protect it, sometimes with their lives. Now, here’s where the magic happens. Moving the tank rocks around occasionally will confuse the cichlids and disrupt their territorial perception.

They will view their environment as a new habitat that needs tackling. So, they will have to reset their territorial boundaries, during which they won’t display as much territorial aggressiveness as before.

It’s a great way of mitigating cichlid aggression which will no longer be an option if you glue the rocks together.

How to Secure Rocks in Aquarium?

This is important since African cichlids tend to rub against the rocks to remove skin parasites bothering them. If the rock structure isn’t stable, its behavior can lead to accidents. If you’ve never had a rocky aquarium, here are some tips to consider when building the habitat:

  • Rocks first, substrate after – African cichlids require sandy substrates since they sometimes like to dig around for food. Placing the sand first and the rocks after can quickly spell disaster. That’s because the heavy rocks will lay onto a soft and unstable flooring which will destabilize the entire system. You should always place the rocks directly onto the tank’s floor, preferably on the wider and smoother side. Only after that should you add the sand and then the water.
  • Use a long rather than tall tank – African cichlids are bottom-dwellers for the most part. They live in shallow waters, which is another way of saying that they care more about horizontal space than the water depth. Get a longer tank and cover the bottom with wide and stable rocks. This will provide you with a wide base that will stabilize the entire structure once built.
  • Mind the rock’s shape – Some rocks are more unstable due to having irregular surfaces. Save those for the upper layers and place the smoother ones on the bottom.
  • Test the structure – This is a must before adding in the fish. Once you’ve created the environment, stacked the substrate, and poured the water, wiggle the rocks a bit to make sure they’re stable. If they seem balanced, you’re good.


African cichlids will feel more comfortable long-term in a habitat that emulates their natural environment. Choose the rocks that fit your aquarium, stack them carefully, and secure them to ensure the structure’s stability, and your cichlids will fit right in.

To end on a must-know note, avoid too large or too tight rock openings. Your cichlids won’t feel safe with the former and won’t be able to use the latter.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *