5 Best Rocks for African Cichlids

African cichlids are hardy and beautiful fish, perfect for indoor aquariums. They’re not particularly friendly with other fish species, so don’t be in a hurry to add them to a community tank. That aside, African cichlids will make for exhilarating tank fish, provided you get over their spiky personality and rather aggressive behavior.

African cichlids are also kind of picky regarding their environment. They require optimal water parameters, little-to-no water fluctuations, and 0 ammonia and nitrates. As hardy and resilient as they are, African cichlids still require stable water parameters to thrive. Drastic or frequent parameter fluctuations can stress out the fish, weaken their immune systems, and leave them vulnerable to various health problems.

But there’s another aspect worth discussing here in relation to African cichlids. Unlike other cichlid species, the African ones reside in 3 major African lakes: Malawi, Victoria, and Tanganyika. They prefer shallow waters and will spend most of their lives around rocks and coral structures.

The ideal tank environment for African cichlids should mimic their natural environment, which means rocks are a must. Let’s see why.

Why do African Cichlids Need Rocks?

African cichlids are notorious rock dwellers for 3 primary reasons:

  1. Shelter – African cichlids live tumultuous lives, fighting between them for territory, food, and females and fighting other fish entering their turf. They also deal with natural predators that see cichlids as easy prey. All these aspects have forced the African cichlid to develop a rock-dwelling behavior, primarily to protect itself from predation and find shelter in case of need. Adding rocks to your cichlid tank will keep African cichlids safer and more comfortable in their environment. Which is a must for a fish species that’s aggressive by nature, bound to give rise to a lot of violence among its ranks.
  2. Breeding places – African cichlids separate into numerous species, some of which are mouthbrooders, while others are egg layers. Both require rocks and caves to find shelter during the mating phase when males become too persistent and push females to their limits. The same hiding spots will prove useful to pregnant females during more stressful situations, allowing them to calm down and relax. Finally, cichlid fry need protection after hatching since adult cichlids are notorious for eating their young.
  3. Territorial markings – Not many people know this, but cichlids use the terrain’s conformation to set their territorial boundaries. African cichlids are intelligent fish and will memorize specific rocks and natural elements to help them set specific territorial delimitations. A male cichlid will take various rocks as reference points when setting up its territorial boundaries. This behavior allows male cichlids to separate their territories accordingly and will contribute to a more stable population dynamic overall.

5 Best Rocks for African Cichlids

Now that we’ve determined that tank rocks are necessary and even vital in some cases, which are the best to consider for your cichlid tank? Let’s assess the available options.

1. Limestone

Limestone typically consists of calcium carbonate, and it’s basically a conglomerate of animal skeletons and shells compacted together in an amorphous mass. The problem with limestone is that it’s not good for cichlids in general, but African cichlids-only. That’s due to the limestone’s composition and density.

Limestone doesn’t lose its integrity in water, but it does eliminate some calcium over time. This will slightly increase the water’s pH, which may not be optimal for all cichlid species. South American cichlids, for instance, feel most comfortable in waters with pH between 6 and 7. Anything more than that will cause visible discomfort and affect fish’s health and behavior.

African cichlids don’t have this problem. They will support pH levels between 7 and 9, so limestone is actually beneficial for them. I suggest monitoring the tank water’s pH level to determine how to best use your limestone.

If the pH needs a more abrupt boost, you can always use limestone powder, allowing the trapped calcium to dissolve even faster. You can achieve the powder from crushed limestone with minimal effort or investment.

2. Lava Rock

Lava rock is exactly what the name says it is. It’s actually hardened lava, forming rock-like structures when coming into contact with cold water. And lava is nothing more than molten rock. What makes this type of rock so popular? In one word – density.

Lava rock is more porous than other rocks while still retaining much of its hardness and contains a variety of elements that will boost the water’s pH. As we’ve already discussed, this is ideal for African cichlids.

But the most important aspect is the rock’s porous nature, serving as breeding ground for denitrifying bacteria. These microorganisms are responsible for reducing the level of nitrites in the tank and playing a defining role in the nitrogen cycle. The tank’s biofilm consists of cultures of billions of beneficial microorganisms feeding on ammonia and nitrites and producing nitrates as byproducts.

In other words, lava rock will contribute to your tank’s ecosystem, providing cichlids with a higher and more stable pH and promoting a healthier aquatic environment.

As a side note, I suggest treating the rock before adding it to your tank. Volcanic rocks are notoriously hard and can come with sharp and rugged surfaces which have the potential to hurt your cichlids. Smooth out the surface to prevent any accidents and keep your cichlids safe. You can even carve holes in the rock to allow cichlids to take cover inside the rock or swim through whenever they like.

3. Sandstone

Sandstone is the result of gravity and pressure acting upon sand particles and forcing them into a hard and compact mass. Hence, the name. This is another type of rock that increases the water’s pH, making it ideal for African cichlids.

One of sandstone’s main benefits, aside from its natural look, is its durability. Unlike volcanic rock, sandstone is easier to carve according to your preferences and available space.

This gives you more room for some moderate aquascaping, which will enhance your tank’s appearance considerably.

The only problem I could mention in relation to sandstone is that it’s not always reliable. You should be very careful when purchasing your sandstone because some have more clay content than others. This will cause them to disintegrate in the tank’s water over time, losing their structure and form and even muddying the tank.

Ask for details about the rock before getting it and even inspect it yourself if possible.

4. Live Rock

Genuine live rock stands as the most expensive and beneficial addition to your African cichlid tank. Live rocks are calcium carbonate structures that serve as support systems for a variety of lifeforms, including bacteria, fish, small crustaceans, and corals. They represent the building blocks of oceanic and marine life and will make for the finest additions to your tank.

Genuine live rocks contain billions of microscopic organisms that will strengthen your tank’s biofilm and control ammonia and nitrites. Many people even consider live rocks to be more effective than commercial filters.

The idea, however, is to find wild live rocks for sale if you’re shooting for the best quality and optimal results. Because there are a lot of artificial products as well. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, provided that you cycle the tank properly and allow the bacteria to populate the rocks prior to adding the fish. This means you should make sure your live rocks are porous, not smooth.

Other than that, the diversity of size, shapes, colors, and structures is amazing among live rocks.

5. River Rocks

This is another good option for your African cichlid tank since river rocks are hard, compact, and contain a lot of calcium which boosts the water’s pH. It is, however, important to test the river rocks before using them, especially if you’re getting them from the wild yourself.

One test should verify the rock’s calcium content. Pour some vinegar on the rock and watch the reaction; it if fizzes, the stone is rich in calcium.

Another test should involve keeping the rock in a bucket filled with water for several days to a week. See how much the pH increases, if at all, which should tell you if the rock is fitting for your needs. You should also clean the rock thoroughly before using it to prevent contaminants and dangerous parasites from entering the tank.

Rocks You Should Avoid for African Cichlids

I would say there are 3 types of decorative elements you should avoid for your cichlid tank:

  • Artificially-colored rocks – Although they are not necessarily bad in all situations, I would avoid them for your African cichlid tank. These rocks often contain dangerous levels of heavy metals due to the artificial colorant, which can pose a health threat to your cichlids.
  • Sharp and unpolished rocks – This stands true for all types of rocks that contain sharp edges and pointy areas that could hurt your cichlids. Some cichlids will rub against the rocks to clean their skin of tiny parasites, so you should always avoid rocks with excessively sharp and unsafe edges.
  • Driftwood – I know, this isn’t a type of rock, but I had to mention it. Driftwood is a good decorative option if you want to lower the water’s pH, which means it’s unfit for your African cichlids. Avoid it at all costs.

How to Choose the Right Rocks?

When looking for the best rocks for your African cichlid tank, you must first understand what your fish need. In this sense, I recommend looking at several defining features:

  • Overall structure – African cichlids like in cave systems with a lot of holes, tunnels, and crevices. Don’t choose compact rocks that come in simple blocks. I suggest looking for items with more intricate structures, making for a natural-looking setting and providing your fish with the utmost comfort and safety. You can even carve the rock yourself if it doesn’t meet your expectations based on what your African cichlids need and the available space.
  • Content – African cichlid rocks need to contain calcium carbonate to increase the water’s pH. As I’ve already explained, African cichlids feel more comfortable in tanks with higher pH levels compared to other species.
  • Density – You want to look for the optimal balance between hardness and porosity. More porous rocks will serve as breeding ground for beneficial bacteria and various other aquatic life forms that will balance out the water’s chemistry. Porous rocks act as natural filters, keeping ammonia and nitrites low and preserving your cichlids’ health and comfort over the years. Just make sure they’re also hard and durable to prevent them from dissolving in the tank water over time.
  • Chemical content – Many artificial rocks contain colorants, heavy metals, and other compounds that may be safe for other fish but that could hurt your African cichlids. A similar situation happens with rocks collected from nature. They could contain various contaminants and parasites that will carry over to your tank and potentially kill your cichlids.
  • Overall safety – No sharp edges or pointy ends that could harm your cichlids. Either smoothen those elements out or choose smoother rocks, to begin with.

In short, it’s not the esthetic factor alone that matters here. The rocks also need to fulfill certain requirements in terms of safety and utility. The list of features I’ve just provided should be a good starting point in this sense.

How to Clean Rocks in African Cichlids Tank?

Cleaning your aquarium rocks makes for a sensitive topic since overcleaning the rocks can actually have damaging consequences. Your aquarium rocks will contain a variety of beneficial bacteria, so you don’t want to clean them too thoroughly or too often.

Don’t use tap water since it contains chlorine, and don’t use any cleaning chemical that would kill the beneficial bacteria. If you have small rocks that you can easily pick off, scrub them a bit with a brush to eliminate excessive algae deposits. If the rock is too large, clean it in the tank, provided the situation is really messy, and you need to remove it prior to that.

Live rocks, for instance, don’t need any cleaning, since they will contain a multitude of creatures and bacteria that you don’t want to disturb. You should only clean your cichlid rocks if the situation demands it, such as when noticing algae overgrowth or if the water parameters go out of charts.

Why do African Cichlids Rub on Rocks?

In most cases, the rubbing behavior signals the presence of a skin parasite, causing itching and forcing the fish to look for relief. Ich is the most common parasite known to instigate this behavior, so monitor your cichlids if they start rubbing against the tank rocks consistently.

If they’ve fallen victims to the Ich parasite, their bodies should start displaying white spots. At this point, quarantine and treatment are necessary to control the parasite and allow your fish to recover.

Your African cichlids resort to the same rubbing behavior when they’re pregnant. The female will rub its body against the rocks in an attempt to clean them to prepare the place for the eggs. It’s normal behavior among pregnant female cichlids, especially when close to labor.

How to Set Up Rocks in a Cichlid Tank?

It all comes down to rock stacking. Rock stacking is as much of an art as it is a necessity for an African cichlid tank. Some important mentions here include:

  • Rocks first, substrate after – African cichlids require sand for substrate, which you will add after the rocks, not before. This means you will have to place the rocks directly onto the tank’s glass. Don’t worry, there is little-to-no danger, so long as you’re careful about it. Not even large rocks can’t damage the tank glass. Adding the rocks first is important since it prevents cichlids from digging in the sand under the rocks and risk destabilizing the rock structures, which could spell disaster fast.
  • Cave forming – This is a job of precision and art. Your goal should be to create openings, caves, and crevices that your cichlids can use to hide from one another. This will keep them calmer and more peaceful overall. Don’t be afraid to fill your tank up to 50-75% with rocks either; the more the better. Stack them on top of each other with care, making sure the structure is stable to prevent any accidents.
  • Arrange the substrate – Add the sand, fill the tank with water, and use your hand to even out the substrate accordingly. Make sure the sand goes between the rocks, until there’s no portion of the tank’s glass bed visible. The water will get extremely murky, which is to be expected. Allow the sand to settle for an hour or so, then turn on the filters and give the water another day to clean up. You can add the African cichlids to their new environment once everything has settled and the water is crystal clear.

The good part about setting up your cichlid tank is that it mainly comes down to your imagination. So long as you also consider the system’s stability and eliminate the risk of the rock system crumbling, of course.


African cichlids require a natural-looking setting, and tank rocks play a vital role in this sense, especially for Mbuna cichlids and other Malawi species. Tanganyika and Victoria cichlids aren’t as rock-dependent as the latter. They will do just fine with more open spaces and some occasional rocky hiding spaces to keep them safe.

In conclusion:

  • Choose your favorite rocks carefully
  • Don’t overclean the rocks not to disturb or destroy the bacterial cultures that inhabit them
  • Avoid using artificially-colored products
  • Don’t use rocks you’ve collected from the wild before testing them for parasites and contaminants

Other than that, how you decide to decorate your cichlid tank is up to you.

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...

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