• Species: Synodontis angelicus

  • Species: Pelvicachromis pulcher

  • Species: Alestopetersius smykalai

African river and lake themed tank ideas

08 April 2018

Tanks based around an African river or lake theme have always been popular with aquarists after something more authentic than a traditional community tank. There are, of course, the Rift Valley cichlids and catfish of Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika, and to some degree these overshadow the various other options available as well.

In this article we'll be looking at the river-dwelling fish of West and Central Africa, some of which work just as well in general communities as they do in African-themed biotope tanks. All the species discussed here are currently available via Tropical Fish 2 Your Door, so even if they aren't available at your local retailer, you can get hold of them easily enough through this online mail order service. For more about TF2YD, click here.

Polka-Dot Catfish, Synodontis angelicus

Perhaps the most celebrated African catfish is this fairly large Synodontis. Unlike most of the other species in this genus, Synodontis angelicus is strikingly marked with off-white spots across a blue-grey body. Maximum length is about 20-25 cm, so while this species isn't difficult to keep it will need sufficient space to do well; 250 litres or more is recommended.

This is one of the riverine Synodontis, though in the wild it occupies deep pools rather than rapids. So while it certainly needs a decent water current and plenty of oxygen (filter turnover rates of at least 8 times the volume of the tank per hour) there's no need for turbulent water flow. Synodontis angelicus is community-safe with two restrictions. Firstly, it's big enough to view very small fish as potential prey; and secondly, it's very territorial, and generally won't tolerate other benthic catfish within its domain. But beyond these restrictions it works very well with midwater characins such as Congo Tetras and Nurse Tetras, as well as riverine cichlids such as Mouthbrooding Kribs, assuming that there's space enough for both cichlids and this catfish to maintain their territories.

Feeding is unproblematic. Like all Synodontis this catfish is opportunistic, and will do well on a mix of algae wafers, softened vegetables, sinking pellets, frozen brine shrimps and so on. Synodontis angelicus is also a notorious snail-eater!

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.

Brichard's Synodontis, Synodontis brichardi

Synodontis brichardi is a long, streamlined species that has a flattened mouth that this catfish can use to attach itself to stones, making it seem somewhat plec-like in appearance and habits. Indeed, like many plecs this species is primarily an aufwuchs feeder, consuming algae and tiny invertebrates that it gleans from rocks and sediments. To some degree this species will take other types of food as well, including the usual bloodworms and brine shrimps enjoyed by other Synodontis, but algae and algae wafers should be a substantial part of its diet.

Compared with Synodontis angelicus discussed above, Synodontis brichardi is a species more specialised for life in those parts of rivers where the water is flowing very fast, such as riffles and rapids. So while basic care is comparable to that of Synodontis angelicus, additional water flow, perhaps through the use of submerged powerheads, is distinctly beneficial. The aquarium can also be decorated with a more authentic collection of materials such as waterworn cobblestones and large pieces of driftwood.

Synodontis brichardi is a territorial but otherwise very peaceful catfish. It makes an excellent companion for characins and small cichlids that occupy similar habitats, but as with most other Synodontis, it does expect to have a cave of its own where it can hide away at times. It is a day-active species though, unlike most Synodontis, and in a tank with lots of plants and rocks it can be easily observed swimming from one shelter to the next as it looks for food.

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.

Payne's Dwarf Catfish, Mochokiella paynei

This small, mottled catfish looks a bit like a miniature Synodontis but at around 6 cm when fully grown its much better suited to small community tanks (any tank upwards of 75 litres will be sufficient for a trio). Besides their mottled green-brown colouration, dark saddle-like markings can be seen, as well as a generally paler underbelly. The whiskers are quite long and unbranched, another difference when compared to Synodontis.

Maintenance is not especially difficult, though these catfish, and indeed Mochokiella generally, are a bit more sensitive than most Synodontis. While it feeds on insect larvae and general organic detritus in the aquarium it readily takes catfish pellets, frozen bloodworms and algae wafers. It is gregarious (so keep at least three specimens) and very peaceful. It should not be kept with substantially larger tankmates, nor species likely to nip or harass it. Dwarf cichlids for example can work, but there will need to be enough space for the catfish and the cichlids to be able to keep out of each other's way.

In terms of water quality, these catfish are stream dwellers and so enjoy water that isn't too warm (22-25 C is ideal) and well oxygenated. Water chemistry doesn't matter too much provided extremes are avoided. A planted community tank with lots of caves and bogwood would provide an ideal environment, though water turnover rates would need to be reasonably high, around 8 times the volume of the tank per hour, necessitating the use of plants adapted to flowing water conditions (so for an African biotope, Vallisneria and Anubias would be appropriate choices).

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.

Blue Diamond Congo Tetra, Alestopetersius smykalai

This tetra is closely related to the better-known Congo Tetra (see below) and has the same sort of flattened, deep-bodied body shape and iridescent colouration. It differs though in tending towards metallic shades of green and blue rather than the purple seen on Congo Tetras, hence its common name, Blue Diamond Congo Tetra. It also sports a distinctive black eyespot on the caudal peduncle that Congo Tetras lack. Maximum length is around 8-10 cm. Males and females look pretty similar, but males do develop longer dorsal and anal fins with raggedy edges.

In terms of basic care it may be kept in much the same way as the Congo Tetra. A spacious aquarium with plenty of water current is essential, while the water chemistry should tend towards the softer end of the range (pH 6-7.5, 2-12 degrees dH is recommended). This species is a willing eater, readily taking flakes and good quality micro-pellet foods, but some frozen foods such as brine shrimps will be appreciated. It is completely peaceful and makes a good dither fish for community tank situations alongside non-aggressive cichlids and catfish. It will get along well with standard Congo Tetras, too.

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.

Congo Tetra, Phenacogrammus interruptus

This pretty and easy to keep tetra is probably the most popular African characin. It is an undemanding species, though its size (up to 8 cm) and active nature does demand a fairly spacious aquarium, upwards of 180 litres. Young specimens in cramped conditions do not show their best colours, and consequently they can be overlooked while shopping, but these tetras are well worth keeping. Healthy specimens have iridescent bodies with distinctive blue, purple and yellow shades along the flanks. Males have longer fins than the females, and when mature this fins often sport a smoky appearance that makes them look even more attractive.

While completely peaceful, these fish are restless, and not good choices for use with very nervous tankmates. But they make excellent dither fish when kept alongside most kinds of riverine cichlids and catfish, providing plenty of movement and colour to keep the tank looking interesting. Congo Tetras should always be kept in groups, certainly at least six specimens, and the more the merrier.

Maintenance is otherwise quite simple. Avoid hard water (pH 6-7.5, 2-12 degrees dH is ideal) and provide plenty of swimming space and a decent current. Settled specimens will eat most foods, including flake and small pellets, though small live foods such as brine shrimps and daphnia are particularly enjoyed. Congo Tetras are not fin-nippers, and are in fact vulnerable to being nipped by aggressive tankmates, so tankmates should be chosen with care.

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.

Super Red Kribensis, Pelvicachromis pulcher var.

Kribs are by far the most popular African dwarf cichlids, and with good reason. They are very adaptable with regard to water chemistry, undemanding in terms of diet, and get along so well with other peaceful fish that they will frequently breed in community tanks! About the only downside to this species has been the way that haphazard breeding has led to some specimens lacking the bright colours seen on wild fish, but varieties such as the Super Red Krib go a long way towards reversing that. These have the dark chocolatey body colour and vivid scarlet colouration on the throat and belly that made this species so popular in the first place.

Maintenance is exceptionally straightforward. Kribs enjoy peaceful tanks with numerous hiding places, but they are not shy fish and will swim about in the open once settled. They are territorial but ignore dissimilar tankmates, and are harmless towards even the smallest community fish, confining themselves to consuming flake, pellets, and small live or frozen foods such as brine shrimp and bloodworms. They may be kept singly, in pairs, or in 'harems' consisting of one male and two or more females, this latter approach being more typical of how they live in the wild.

Breeding will happen without any input from the aquarist assuming conditions suit them. Eggs are laid inside a cave or hollow ornament, both parents defending their spawn vigorously but often without attracting the attention of the aquarist. It is very common for their keeper to only know spawning has occurred when the parents chaperone the mobile fry around the aquarium. Krib fry are easy to rear, consuming algae and organic detritus as well as finely powdered flake food. One issue to consider though is pH: equal numbers of male and female fry will only be produced at a pH between 6.5 and 7; above pH 7 the fry will be almost entirely male, and below pH 6.5 the fry are mostly female.

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.

Mouthbrooding Krib, Chromidotilapia guentheri

Despite their common name, Mouthbrooding Kribs are not true Kribs (which belong to the genus Pelvicachromis) but they do have somewhat similar colouration. Males are pinkish-brown with dark patches along their flanks and red and white edges to their dorsal and tail fins. Females are similar but much smaller and during spawning will show a pink to plum-coloured patch across the abdomen similar to that seen on Kribs. Both sexes have bluish 'eyespots' on their gill covers. Whereas males can reach as much as 20 cm in length, females are much smaller, typically only 10-12 cm long.

In terms of care these fish are territorial sand-sifters well suited to communities where they're the only bottom-dwellers (and certainly the only cichlids) in the tank. Medium-sized dither fish such as Congo Tetras work well alongside them, and will encourage these somewhat shy fish to swim about more confidently in the open. It is not too particular about water chemistry provided extremes are avoided, but around neutral, slightly soft to medium hardness water is recommended. A soft, sandy substrate is essential though because these cichlids prefer to feed by sifting edible morsels including flake and frozen foods out of the sand. They are not otherwise destructive of plants, and epiphytes such as Anubias should work particularly well.

As their common name suggests, these fish are mouthbrooders. To be precise, they're paternal mouthbrooders, exhibiting the more primitive type of mouthbrooding where eggs are laid and fertilised on flat rocks, but the male then takes the fertilised eggs into his mouth for just a couple of weeks until the fry are actively swimming about and feeding. Curiously perhaps, the female doesn't abandon the male, and will actually become engaged in protecting the fry once the fry are released!

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.

Flat Head Eel Catfish, Gymnallabes typus

Rounding off our selection of African riverine fishes is an unusual oddball catfish closely related to the notorious Walking Catfish (Clarias batrachus) but smaller and far easier to keep in home aquaria. Gymnallabes typus gets to about 20-25 cm in length, with a distinctive flattened head, long whiskers, and an eel-like body. In the wild it feeds predominantly on benthic invertebrates, but can be maintained perfectly well on a combination of sinking catfish pellets and the usual frozen such as bloodworms and krill. Nonetheless, bite-sized tankmates may disappear during the night.

On the other hand, when kept with medium-sized characins and cichlids this catfish behaves very well, and it has proven to be relatively easy to keep. Its main demands are for good water quality, sufficient hiding places, and water chemistry that is not too hard. It may be kept singly or in groups. Like all clariid catfish Gymnallabes typus is an air-breather and must have access to the air, but it is jumpy and prone to escaping from open-topped tanks.

To find out more about this species or to order it online via TF2YD, click here.