Golden Freshwater Clam

Keeping Tilapia in aquariums

One of the reasons why tilapia is such a popular fish among fish farmers world wide is that is sturdy, adaptable and will eat almost anything. These traits also makes it an excellent aquarium fish, provided of course that you have a large enough aquarium. Many tilapia species can be kept even by beginner aquarists. Tilapia can also be kept in outdoor ponds, but most species are sensitive to cold and can only be housed outdoors during the warmest months of the year unless you live in the tropics.   

Many different species of tilapia have been successfully kept by aquarists, but the most commonly kept species are Zebra tilapia / Tiger tilapia (Tilapia buttikoferi) and Spotted tilapia (Tilapia mariae). In order to create the perfect aquarium for your tilapia you need to find out more about the natural habitat of the specific species you’re interested in keeping. It is impossible to provide guidelines that will be true for all sorts of tilapia. Before you purchase fish for your aquarium it is also very important to find out about its temperament and maximal size.

Small tilapia can be housed in 150 L (40 gallon) aquariums, while larger tilapias will require at least 250 L (70 gallon). It is also important to keep in mind that it is more difficult to keep the water quality up in a small aquarium than in a big one. A skilled aquarist might be able to house tilapia in a fairly small aquarium, but if you are a beginner you should always opt for a larger tank than the absolute minimum since it will give you a safety margin.

Using plants in a tilapia aquarium can become problematic because many species of tilapia eat plants and these fishes can also be fond of digging. It is therefore common to use rocks, roots and similar types of aquarium decoration to create hiding spots for tilapia. Cover the bottom with gravel and sand and ideally include flat rocks in the set up. If you are willing to risk the life of a few plants your tilapia will greatly appreciate it. Choose hardy and inexpensive plants and cover their roots with rocks to prevent digging. Examples of plant types that have been successfully kept with tilapia in aquariums are Java fern, Anubias, Crinum and some Cryptocoryne species. 

Several tilapias can be housed together but they are territorial, especially during the breeding period, and it is therefore a good idea to create natural borders in the aquarium. Tilapias of the genus Tilapia tend to be more territorial than the members of the genera Sarotherodon and Oreochromis (these fishes are still referred to as tilapias for historical reasons). Sarotherodon and Oreochromis species will often live in schools and are therefore less territorial.

Quite a few tilapia species might eat small fish in the aquarium and are therefore not suitable tank mates for such fishes. Tilapias can instead be combined with catfish, barbs and semi-aggressive cichlids. (All tilapias belong to the cichlid family.)  

As mentioned above, most tilapias are sturdy and highly adaptable. When it comes to water values, they are known to acclimatize themselves to most conditions as long as you avoid the extremes. Most species will tolerate both acidic and alkaline waters (pH 6-8) and will stay happy as long as the water temperature exceeds 23 degrees C / 74 degrees F. Poor water quality will make the fish more prone to illness.