Biotope aquarium- A replication of nature in the aquarium setting. Unlike other aquarium styles, the ‘biotope’ aquarium is, in theory, creating an ecosystem specific to one location and containing only elements found in this location. By all accounts, these aquariums are as close to nature as you can get. Today let’s get even closer by taking a look at African biotopes.

Before we look at some ecosystems, let us look at Africa in general.

Africa is huge! In fact, its land mass is spread across the equator almost equally on either side. Africa’s highest point is Kibo peak which is located in the Kilimanjaro Massif (5,895 metres above sea level), and the lowest point is Lake Assal which is in the Danakil Basin (173 m above sea level). Africa has many different bodies of water. Rift lakes, rivers, coastal, and blackwater, to name a few. 

For this article, we have split Africa’s waterways into two. Within each group, we look at various ecosystems suitable for replicating in the home aquarium.


There are three types of rivers in Africa:

  • Permanent rivers – Rivers with consistently high water levels, like the Nile, have their sources in the humid equatorial zone. Other African rivers such as the Congo, is a permanent African river found in West Africa and usually have wide beds with reasonably fast-flowing water. Freshwater fish Species such as the upside-down catfish are found in these ecosystems. 
  • Seasonal rivers – These rivers are almost non-existent during the dry season. When the rainy season begins, these rivers can become fast-flowing with strong currents. Such changes create fluctuating water parameters. Inhabited mainly by carp. Bahr al-Arab and Azaauak are two examples of this kind of river.
  • Episodic rivers – Similar to seasonal watercourses, however, Episodic rivers only appear after heavy rain. Found only in deserts and can rapidly disappear into the sand within a few hours. Two examples of such rivers are Sakura and the Irawan.

Two river styles are popular among aquarists looking to recreate a biotope ecosystem of an African river:

– The Congo River

– Periodic rivers

The Congo River

The Congo River Biotope.

A biotope from Central Africa

A soft silica sand (a mixture between fine and coarse grain). The addition of small river stones or petrified wood can replicate the river bed nicely.

The water conditions should be between Ph 7.0-7.8, temperature 24-27C.

Plants: Suitable species include African fern plants, along with any of the crinum family plants, work very well. Not to mention the beautiful anubias. 

Fish species: Congo tetras, Kribensis and other smaller tetras work well. Additionally, Synodontis catfish are acceptable too. 

Hardscape: Larger river stones or petrified wood are a great, naturally matching material to create your display. Using a mixture of stone sizes makes small caves and hiding spots for the fish. Sumatran wood is preferred but can be substituted with various kinds of wood. The critical element of the layout in this biotope aquarium is the constant movement of water, so the hardscape should be designed to allow water to flow without disruption.

Periodic rivers

Ideally, a paludarium should be used to create such an ecosystem. This aquarium style will allow the use of marginal and aquatic plants together – a prominent feature of such an environment. It is possible to replicate the aesthetics of drying up a riverbed with the ability to create land or a ‘dry’ section. 

The substrate should consist of gravel mixed with fine and coarse sand and aqua soil.

Water parameters must be within Ph 5.5-7 with a water temperature of 24-28C.

For plants, Anubias is perfect here. Smaller species of this plant group will ideally grow along the bank and into the water. Attaching itself to any wood or stones in encounters. Additionally, plants from the genus pistia and water hyacinth compliment the overall display.

Fish species must be selected carefully for such a display. The Redtail notho and banded panchax will be at home in a biotope ecosystem like this. 

Creating the actual layout of a paludarium can be challenging but extremely rewarding. For this particular display, lots of oversized wood visible above the water surface, fallen leaves and floating plants will create a tremendous mysterious effect.


Africa does not have a lot of lakes, but the ones that occur are fascinating, thanks to the beautiful endemic species in them. The well-known rift lakes such as Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, Lake Edward, Lake Tanganyika and, of course, lake Malawi fill the tectonic depressions of the Great African Rifts. Characterized by their clear waters. Not to mention the hidden grottos below the surface. Among the many rock formations in the deep waters of these lakes are caverns and rock formations filled with cichlids, catfish, crustaceans and even freshwater sponges. 

Each lake is a unique ecosystem with species of flora and fauna that are typical only for them. Lake Chad – a drainless lake partially dry during the dry season, also deserves mention. The lake has shallow, warm waters and muddy shores covered with swamp vegetation. There are endemic species, e.g. a typical West African lungfish.

Although we associate Africa with a lack of water, a typical landscape of the continent consists of extensive swamps created by the seasonal flooding of rivers. A great example of such an ecosystem is the Okavango Delta. 

From the examples above, hobbyists create the most common biotope ecosystems: Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Viktoria.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi 

A biotope display that celebrates the raw beauty of the rocks and the contrast created by the vibrant colours of Malawi cichlids. 

A substrate of crushed coral is commonly used to help “buffer” the water. Crushed coral slightly increases the pH and hardness of the water parameters. For aesthetic reasons, a mixture of crushed coral and sand can be used.

Water parameters differ from other African biotope ecosystems, with a pH between 7.7 and 8.8 and a water temperature of 24-29C.

Plants: Malawi cichlids are algae grazers, so a thin growth of green algae should be encouraged to form on the rock surfaces. Anubias can be used for decorative purposes if attached to rocks accordingly.

Fish: Malawi cichlids 

Creating a hardscape for this particular ecosystem is very straightforward. Employing lots of rocks piled up to create a variety of different hiding spots for the fish. The more hiding places available help reduce aggression and create a very entertaining display.

The use of spotlights can emphasize specific areas of the aquarium and add to the display’s detail.

Lake Victoria

Substrate: White quartz sand is best used for the natural setting.

Water parameters: Clearwater within Ph 7.1-9.0 and a temperature of 26-34C would be ideal. 

Plants: Vallisneria and Anubias species do well in this biotope.

Fish: Choose from the many Haplochromis cichlids. 

A mixture of large and smaller stones may be used to create the idea of depth within the aquarium. Position branches to look as if they have fallen in from the bank of the lake.

Intense lighting is not essential in this setup.

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika

This biotope suits a large variety of fish and many different rock formations.

Sand or fine gravel makes the best substrate. As plants are not a prominent feature, it is not essential to provide nutrient-rich soil. 

Water parameters should be between 7.6-9.2pH and 24-29C, with the water being clear.

Plants: Vallisneria is the most manageable and readily available plant suitable for this biotope. Avoid densely planting the aquarium to allow the much-needed space for swimming.

FishJulidochromis dickfeldi are stunning and work well. A popular choice is also the shell-dwelling cichlids.

A mixture of large and medium rocks makes a great background (especially sandstones and limestones). Smaller stones and empty shells (if selecting one of the shell-dwelling species) can be used for the arrangement towards the front of the aquarium. Plants should not be too dense.

The lighting should not be too intense. Spotlighting looks good.

If you set up an African biotope aquarium, be aware that different rocks and stones can impact your water parameters. Many species require a higher pH than other freshwater species, which should also be considered when choosing the stocking. It’s worth buying wood, rocks and stones from your LFS to reduce the risk of surprises. While it is common to heavily stock an African cichlid aquarium, care should also be taken to ensure we still match the space requirements of all the fish. Overstocking may lead to severe problems for the whole aquarium ecosystem. 

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