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Making a beautiful cichlid tank that functions as a suitable habitat for your cichlids requires meeting your cichlids' needs while decorating the tank in a way you like. Through aquascaping -- the art of decorating an aquarium -- you can create a beautiful, eye-catching aquarium, perfectly suited for your cichlids.
Place a layer of substrate in your tank. Depending on the cichlid species that will inhabit your tank, this will either be sand or gravel. Different species prefer different substrates based on what the floor is in their natural habitat. The thinner the substrate layer the better, as some cichlids will dig and create a mess of your tank with deeper substrates. That being said, some species may prefer a deeper substrate for various reasons.
Decide on the layout you want for your tank. Some common layouts include convex, triangular and concave. In a convex tank, most of the plants and decor are in the middle, adding height in the middle and low on the sides. Concave is the opposite layout, with high plants and structures on each side and a low spot in the middle. Triangular tanks closely mimic many natural rivers, with a high area on one side that slopes down toward the other. All three layouts are acceptable for cichlids, because they all allow for swimming areas and individual territories.
Add rocks and structures to your tank to give your cichlids hiding places and areas to mark as their own territories. Caves are recommended for cave brooders who use them as nurseries; they also make ideal hiding places.
A territory for a cichlid could be a single structure that the fish can claim. Be wary though: Some cichlids enjoy rearranging the tank you've decorated. Place any rocks or structures that could possibly break the tank wall far enough from the sides so that they won't strike the aquarium glass if they fall.
Online retailers and aquarium-supply stores sell a variety of caves, driftwood, rocks and other decor. You also may find some materials outdoors that would make good cichlid tank decor. If you do, be sure to clean it thoroughly in a mild bleach solution and rinse it before placing it in your tank. Some rock types may add to the alkalinity or acidity of your tank, so be cautious about using found materials.
Add plants, either live or fake, to the tank to add color, interest and additional hiding places for your cichlids. In the "high" areas of your tank, consider tying or hooking some plants to the hood of your tank to add some additional height and cover. You can also build up the substrate or get taller plants that may poke out of the water a little bit for a more natural look. Colored plants will add a focal point in your tank.
Add a tank background to the back of your tank. A natural background that depicts the cichlids' native environment is best. You can also add the background to the sides for a more realistic look. These backgrounds typically come in rolls and are available at aquarium-supply and pet-supply stores. Some are sticky contact paper, others must be attached with tape. The backgrounds often depict underwater scenes, but a variety of pictures or designs are available.