The Biotope Aquarium Explained

biotope aquarium

In a biotope aquarium, the aquarist attempt to simulate a natural habitat, assembling fish species, plants, water chemistry and decorations found in that specific ecosystem. A “true” biotope should be a mirror of a natural habitat.

There are many good reasons for setting up an aquarium that simulates a natural habitat. Those of us who have done everything bred everything and kept most fish might simply want a new challenge. Another good reason to set up a biotope aquarium is to see the fish interacting in their “natural” environment which is completely different from what you will see in a community setup.

Several types of Biotopes

In my opinion, there are several types of biotopes.

1. The true Biotope is a recreation of a specific environment. Everything kept in a true biotope should be found together in an area that fits within the dimensions of the tank. It should be a “chunk” of a real natural environment. An example of this could be a small channel of the Amazon River where small fish take refuge among driftwoods, plants, and dead leaves.

2. The Habitat tank can be a good option for those who do not want to deal with all the requirement a true biotope involve. Instead of using organism from a specific ecosystem, we get a little looser and use organism from multiple areas of a given body of water. As an example, an Amazon habitat would include fish, plants and decoration from anywhere in the river, as long as they can be found in the Amazon and its tributaries.

3. The theme tank doesn’t even come close to a biotope but since many aquarists consider it as one, why not include it here. In a theme tank, we use organism from an entire country or continent. The traditional “Asian” or “African” tanks where fish, plants, and decoration are from anywhere on the continent are good examples.

Here are some popular biotope ideas:

  • SOUTH AMERICA: Blackwater Creek, Whitewater River, Clearwater Stream, Oxbow Lake
  • AFRICALake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Victoria, Madagascar
  • CENTRAL AMERICA: Cenotes Cave system, Fast-Moving Stream, Mangrove Estuary, Livebearer Habitat
  • ASIA: Thai Creek, Indian/Burmese River, Asian Blackwater Pool, Asian Mangrove Estuary
  • AUSTRALIA: New Guinea River, Rainforest Creek

Lake Malawi Biotope

lake malawi biotope

Lake Malawi is an African Great Lake located on the East side of the continent. The lake is about 375 miles (604 km) long by 53 miles (85 km) wide, making it the third largest in Africa and the eighth largest lake in the world. This large rocky lake is the home of the well-known African Cichlids which are endemic to the lake. A total of 280 cichlid species has been described, although biologist has reasons to believe there might be up to 500 cichlid species living in the lake.reasons to believe there might be up to 500 cichlid species living in the lake.

Malawi cichlids are divided into two groups: the haplochromines which are those commonly seen in the aquarium trade and the tilapiines. Within the first group, Haplochrominae, there are two subgroups. Both subgroups require different environments which are something that you should consider when setting up the tank. The first one, known as Haps, consists of open water and sand-dwelling species. The second subgroup is known as mbuna, which means “rockdwellers.” The Mbuna fish are smaller, and both sexes are often brightly colored, although in some species the females may be brownish overall. The second group, the tilapiines, consists of the only substrate-spawning species in the lake (Tilapia rendalli), and four species of chambo (Nyasalapia).

The water in Lake Malawi is slightly alkaline with a pH ranging from 7.7 to 8.6, a dH of 6-10, and a conductivity of 210 to 285 µS cm. Given its tropical latitude, the water of this lake is generally warm, having a surface temperature that ranges from 75 to 84 °F (24 to 29 °C), with a deep water temperature of about 72 °F (22 °C ), year round.

Malawi Tank

Mbuna cichlids will require a tank with a built up rocky environment as they use caves for breeding and as boundery markers to mark their territory. Some good rocks are river rocks, slate, and limestone (limestone will buffer the water). As a substrate, sand and/or gravel can be used but it is better to use a sandy substrate rather than gravel as it gives a more natural environment.

Haps cichlids will require plenty of open swimming space with just a few boulders or rocks scattered on the floor of the tank. They less aggressive then Mbuna cichlids and do not need caves. Again, sand would make a perfect substrate.

Fish: Lake Malawi cichlids


Vallisneria species are the only available plants I know (Vallisneria is native to both Malawi and Tanganyika). Those willing to bend the biotope rules a little could also add some annubias.

Lake Tanganyika Biotope

Lake Tanganyika Biotope

Lake Tanganyika is an African Great Lake estimated to be the second or third largest freshwater lake in the world by volume. This large rocky lake is also known to be the second deepest lake (1,470 m) next to L. Baikal in Siberia and the longest in the world (670 km). Almost 1/6 of the world’s freshwater is contained in this 9-12 million years old lake.

Located along the East African Rift, Lake Tanganyika is home to a large amount of fish. According to Wikipedia, at least 250 species of cichlid and 150 non-cichlid species inhabit the lake. Almost all (98%) of the Tanganyikan cichlid species exist nowhere else in the world outside the Lake Tanganyika watershed. The lake also contains one of the only freshwater jellyfish, numerous mollusks, sponges, and aquatic snakes that are endemic as well.

Lake Tanganyika is a large lake with many different habitats. The rocky shore, the open water, and the sandy bottom are some of them.

The first one, the shallow rocky shore is characterized by the presence of rocks on a sandy substrate. Rocks in this area can vary in size, from small pebbles to bigger rocks like footballs.

Another rocky habitat is the “rocky sediment free habitat” where the rocks are much larger in size. There is no sand for the rocks to rest upon in this habitat and the rocks are often covered with algae which attract many herbivores cichlids.

Deeper in the lake is the sandy habitat where we can find sand-dwelling, shell-dwelling and schooling species. This area is characterized by large sandy surfaces, few rocks here and there and an abundance of abandoned snail shells.

The open water habitat is naturally very big. Huge schools of fish are often seen in this area. A few cichlid species live in the open.

The water in Lake Tanganyika is alkaline with a pH ranging from 7.8 to 8.8 and is medium hard with a dH from 7-11. The water of the lake is generally warm with a surface temperature that ranges from 73 to 88 °F (23 to 31 °C). However, most fish species inhabit areas with a temperature from 75-84 °F (24-29 °C ).

The Tanganyika Tank

Like any biotope aquarium, a Tanganyika biotope should be as close as possible to the natural ecosystem. As said above, many different ecosystems are present in this large lake. In most cases, Tanganyika cichlids will fall into two or three scenarios: rocky, open water or sandy environment.

For Tanganyika cichlids that inhabit rocky areas of the lake, the biotope aquarium should be built up with plenty of rocks, tunnels, crevices, caves and overhangs to serve as spawning sites and, more importantly, hiding places for harassed fish. Each fish will establish its own territory. Thus it is important to provide a shelter for each fish. A coral sand bottom should be used to buffer the water at an alkaline level Julidochromis cichlids are common in this habitat.

For cichlids from sandy bed areas of Lake Tanganyika, the biotope aquarium should have a sand substrate (read more about substrate aquarium here) with snail shells where sand-dwelling cichlids will seek shelter and spawn. Here again, coral sand can be used to buffer the water. Some cichlids from this area are Neolamprologus multifasciatus, Neolamprologus brevis, N. occellatus, N. mealegrise, N. caudopunctatus, N. signatus, Altolamprologus compressiceps and A. calvus.

An open water biotope should provide plenty of open water to swim around. Unlike most other Lake Tanganyika species, males cichlids from this environment will not need any decor, rocks or sand to mark their territories. However, female will need some hiding places where they can hide as they cannot get way from the male in an aquarium. A sandy substrate can be used to mimic the natural conditions of the lake. Cichlids from this environment include: Cyprichromis leptosoma, C. microlepidotus, C. pavo, C. sp. leptosoma jumbo and C. sp. “Zebra”.

Whatever you chose to go with a rocky, open water or a sandy biotope environment, all Lake Tanganyika cichlids must be provided with large open swimming areas. The water chemistry should match that of the lake with a temperature of 75-84°F (24-29°C), a pH from 7.5-9.0, and a water hardness from 7-18 dH.


Lake Tanganyika cichlids including snail shell-dwellers, Synodontis, Afromastacembelus eels, Tanganyika Rainbowfish.


Vallisneria species are the only available plants I know (Vallisneria is native to both Malawi and Tanganyika). Those willing to bend the biotope rules a little could also add some anubias.biotope rules a little could also add some anubias.

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