Why Do African Cichlids Move the Substrate?

If you own African cichlids, then you might have already noticed one thing: they like to dig into the substrate quite a lot, and they will dig into it often. But why do they do that, why does that happen?

There are many different things they want to achieve with this:

  • They are trying to create a shelter for them, or they want to create a nest for them and their offspring.
  • They will move rocks and gravel to make a territory for themselves and determine the parameters of their territory
  • They want to hide food under rocks and under the gravel, so they dig the food deep

These are all possible reasons, and in some cases, there’s not really much you can do. At best, you can select the right type of substrate that won’t harm them, and you should also make sure you don’t have plants rooted deeply, or you’re risking that the cichlids will dig them out of the substrate.

In this article, we’ll take a look at why and how African cichlids dig into the substrate in more detail, and how you can prevent this from happening or at least, minimize the damage.

What is the Best Substrate for African Cichlids?

So because African cichlids like to dig into the substrate and move it around, it’s better to choose the right type of substrate. This will allow them not to harm themselves, and you’ll also minimize the damage they do to the tank, and to themselves.

The best type of substrate for African cichlids is sand. Because it’s so fine, it will not harm your fish, but it will also not cloud the water when they start digging into the substrate.

Another type of substrate you can try is very fine gravel. This is another great type of substrate, for both reasons. And you should pick a high-quality one so that it won’t cloud the tank when the fish start digging into it.

As for which substrate to choose, we recommend the Carib Sea African Mix substrate. This is a good mixture of sand and fine gravel, and it won’t harm your fish.

It’s made specifically for African species, including African cichlids, so it will suite your fish nicely. It’s also very natural and free of any substances or chemicals, so it won’t cloud the water when the fish start moving it around.

Do Shell Dweller Cichlids Disturb the Substrate?

Yes, shell dwellers are especially known for their ability to move around the substrate and to change the appearance of your tank. They will move around the sand, and they will actually reshape the entire aquarium.

In many cases, there’s not much you can do to impact this behavior. The best way to enable them to move the substrate around easier is to use sand, which is slightly finer and friendlier for the fish, as they won’t get harmed when they move the substrate around.

Because they will live near the bottom of the tank, they will look to create havens of safety for themselves, especially if they don’t have shells around them.

In that case, the best way to solve that is to provide them with enough shells so that they feel more comfortable and safe in their tank.

Should You Vacuum the Substrate in a Cichlids Tank?

You should definitely vacuum the substrate in a cichlids tank once in a while, to make sure all the debris and dirt gets removed from the substrate.

We recommend doing monthly or even weekly vacuuming, even though it can be consuming. Because cichlids like to disturb the substrate, all this debris will get released into the water when they do so, which will make it harder for you to keep the water clean.

Another possible reason why you need to clean the substrate is that fish will leave leftover food in the substrate, which makes the debris significantly dirtier.

Some fish will not eat all of their food, especially if you tend to feed them a lot of food at the same time. A good way to combat this is to minimize the debris by feeding them just enough food.

If you have shell dwellers, then it might not be the best idea to vacuum the substrate.

Because they are sensitive when you move the substrate around, they will actually not like it when you do so, and they will potentially get stressed, as they will have to reshape the aquarium back to the way it was before. So if you have shell dwellers, skip in vacuuming the substrate.

Do Peacock Cichlids Move the Substrate?

Yes, even peacock cichlids are likely to move around the substrate, although not nearly as much as other cichlids. It’s actually a typical behavior for other cichlids, while peacocks are not especially known for this themselves.

Still, it can happen with peacock cichlids, too. As they want to create enough space for themselves as they find themselves near the bottom of the tank, they will start to dig into the substrate in order to move it around and to make way for themselves.

Will African Cichlids Uproot Plants?

Now if you have plants and African cichlids in the same tank, then you might want to rethink your strategy. Because African cichlids will uproot plants, and they will move them around and displace them.

So if you have African cichlids, live plants might not be the best idea for you. Instead, it’s better for you to go for artificial plants which will not get harmed if they are displaced, or to go for plants with stronger roots, which will not get easily removed.


African cichlids are known for their erratic behavior when it comes to moving around the substrate in the tank.

They do that because they want to create a shelter for themselves and their offspring, and they want to reshape the tank in their own image.

You can do a few things, such as choosing the right substrate and the right plants.

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 *