Tanganyika Cichlid Habitats

Tanganyika Cichlid Habitats

During the mid-1940’s, Lake Tanganyika was explored by a professor named Max Poll. This was the second major exploration of the lake and Max Poll was among the first scientists to focus on the amazing specialization and segregation exhibited by the cichlids who lived there. Professor Poll divided the lake into six main biotopes and this division is still commonly used by aquarists over half a century later. According to Professor Poll, the six main biotopes of Lake Tanganyika were the rocky shores, the surge, the sandy bottom, the muddy bottom, the pelagic waters, and the benthic waters. In this article we will take a closer look at these six biotopes and the cichlids that inhabit them.    

The rocky shore biotope in Lake Tanganyika

The rocky shore biotope can be divided into three different parts: the shallow rocky coast habitat, the rocky sediment-free habitat, and the rocky sediment covered habitat. Close to the surface, you will find the shallow rock biotope and its inhabitants. As you proceed farther down, you will enter the steep rocky environment where no sediment can congregate – the rocky sediment-free habitat. Below this biotope is the third and final rock biotope, the rocky sediment covered habitat. 

Shallow rocky coast habitat
The shallow rocky coast habitat is characterized by the presence of rocks, which can vary in size from small pebbles to big footballs.  The rocks rest on the sandy floor and if you want to keep Tanganyika cichlids native to this type of habitat, you should ideally provide them with a sandy substrate and plenty of differently sized rocks. The shallow rocky coast habitat does not have to be extremely shallow; it can actually be found as far down as 22 meters in certain parts of Lake Tanganyika. In most regions of the lake, it is however much shallower. The shallow rocky coast habitat provides cichlids with a lot of food and this has led to fierce competition among the species over suitable foraging grounds. In order to stay camouflaged, many cichlids native to this habitat feature a barred pattern on the sides since this makes it possible for them to blend in the with shallow water background. When living in shallow waters you do not only have to stay away from predatory aquatic species –  birds will also be a constant threat. This barred pattern provides makes the fish hard to spot for hovering birds when the fish moves against a background of shimmering waves.

Rocky sediment free habitat
The rocky sediment free habitat does not have a lot of pebbles; the rocks are instead medium to large in size. Boulders many meters across are not uncommon here, and even the smaller rocks will normally exceed 1 meter in diameter. The sediment free habitat is usually very steep and there is no sand for the rocks to rest upon. Since there is no sediment, the entire habitat can be covered in algae. Herbivore cichlids from this habitat will appreciate lush algae growth in the aquarium and many of them need occasional meaty treats since wild specimens tend to accidentally ingest tiny bugs from the algae carpet when grazing, thereby receiving necessary protein.

Rocky sediment covered habitat  
This habitat is located further down where the slope is not as steep, typically at a dept between 3 and 14 meters. The many rocks are here covered in sediment and the algal growth is therefore not as lush as in the two habitats described above. It will still provide sufficient nourishment for the many small cichlid species that you can find sheltering between the rocks.

The Surge Biotope in Lake Tanganyika

The surge biotope is limited to the upper 100 cm of the water column along the shore where the crashing waves create a high degree of turbulence. In this habitat you can find cichlids that have developed special anatomical features in order to survive the strong forces and constant water movements, e.g. the cute goby cichlids who have miniature swim bladders that make it easier for them to stay down close to the bottom. It is also common for fish from this habitat to have adapted ventral fins and dentition. The surge biotope is characterized by high oxygen levels and low levels of carbon dioxide.

The Sandy Bottom biotope

The sandy bottom biotope is the result of millions of years of erosion; a process which is still in progress today. The plant life is extremely scarce, and unlike the rocky biotope, the sandy bottom does not feature a myriad of rocks and crevices to seek shelter among. Cichlids from the sandy biotope are therefore often schooling species that live in flocks consisting of up to several hundred specimens. Living in a school reduces the risk of predation. It is for instance in this biotope that you find the sociable Callochromis and Xenotilapia cichlids.

The shape and colouration of sand dwelling cichlids are usually focused on camouflage, since this is extremely important in this biotope. The cichlids have also developed a series of other treats and behaviours in order to stay alive, such as the ability to dive headlong into the sand when a predator comes near. Some species even have special sensory organs that will warn them about potential threats.

One striking characteristics of the Lake Tanganyika sandy biotope is the vast abundance of abandoned snail shells. In most other lakes, i.e. lakes where the pH-value is neutral or acidic, these shells would gradually wither away. The hard and alkaline water of Lake Tanganyika prevents this form happening and the shells will therefore accumulate in floor depressions and become a part of the bottom itself. The adaptable cichlids of Lake Tanganyika have naturally taken advantage of this feature and a lot of sand dwelling species use empty snail shells for both hiding and breeding. Such cichlids are commonly referred to as shell dwelling cichlids and will greatly appreciate empty shells in the aquarium. 

If you take a closer look at sand dwelling Tanganyika cichlids you will see how a large number of species exhibits angled teeth. This type of teeth makes it possible for the cichlids to efficiently scoop up sand from the bottom and feed on shrimp buried within. Such cichlids will appreciate crustaceans-based foods in the aquarium.  

The Muddy Bottom

The muddy bottom primarily consists of mud brought by inflowing rivers, but can also feature organic waste products (excrement, dead and decaying organisms, etcetera). The mud contains plenty of bacteria which function as food for zooplankton and you can therefore find plenty of zooplankton in the water right above the muddy bottom biotope. The zooplankton is appreciated by small crustaceans, and these crustaceans are in turn a great source of nutrition for many cichlids. There are also several cichlid species that feed directly on zooplankton.

Pelagic waters

Since Lake Tanganyika is such a vast lake, the pelagic water habitat is naturally very big. The strong sunlight provides energy for a thriving population of phytoplankton which serves as food for zooplankton. The zooplankton are in turn food for huge schools of fish; most of them non-cichlids. There is a few cichlid species that live out in the open waters and feed directly on zooplankton, but a majority of the cichlids species found in these waters are predatory cichlids that feed on the schooling species. 

Benthic Waters

Since Lake Tanganyika is such a stable environment temperature wise, no water turbulence brings oxygen down to its deeper regions. Fish who wants to survive in the benthic waters must therefore cope with oxygen depletion. They must also be able to find their way in low lighting or complete darkness since it is very hard even for the strong African sun to penetrate this far. This is why many cichlids living in the benthic waters have developed specialized sensory organs that allow them to navigate without having to rely on eye-sight. Below the benthic waters there is no fish life at all since fish cannot survive the extreme lack of oxygen.

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