Apistogramma Substrate: What You Need to Know for a Happy and Healthy Aquarium

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Much more than just the “material on the floor of the tank,” choosing a safe and best substrate can be one of the more integral aspects of setting up an Apistogramma tank. 

Besides contributing to the decoration of a tank, the substrate also serves other purposes, though there are several situations in which a bare bottom is preferred.

With so many substrate options available for Apistogramma owners when setting up an aquarium, the question arises: which one is the best?

What is The Best Substrate for an Apistogramma Fish Tank?

Smooth sand.

This is mainly because Apistogrammas are part of Geophagini cichlids, which are popularly known as eartheaters for their habit of sifting through whatever their substrate may be to find food, like insect larvae, crustaceans, plant material, and detritus.

Aquarium substrates come in a wide range of materials. Sand is probably the safest type to use with Apistogrammas because of the size of its grains. The most important factor is that the sand is smooth or rounded so that it does not damage their gills.

More Reasons Why Apistos Love Sand as Substrate

apistogramma substrate

Although safety is the major health concern when using sand substrate in Apistogramma tanks, sand offers many other benefits as opposed to gravel and soil.

Match Their Natural Habitat and Behaviors

Experienced aquarists will tell you that the best practice for keeping any fish is one that closely mimics its natural biotope conditions.

In nature, Apistos live in sandy riverbeds covered with a layer of dead leaves and rotting wood. These bottom-dwellers spend most of their time digging through the substrate, which must be composed of tiny and fairly smooth granules.

Sand does just that! It is much finer and softer than gravel. As you might know, even the smallest pea gravel, which usually measures 3/8″ in diameter with smooth, rounded edges, can still be too big and pose a risk to these diminutive dwarf cichlids.

Sand is Inert

Unlike nutrient-rich soil substrates, sand is inert. That means this medium won’t lower pH and soften water hardness. On top of that, it does not have minerals, silicates, and other unwanted toxins that may release into the water over time.

This is important because Apistogramma, especially wild-caught specimens, are more demanding and have their own set of water requirements that need to be met.

Easy to Clean

Many people prefer the convenience that comes with using sand substrate because it compacts together so tightly that the waste, debris, plant matter, and uneaten food stay on the surface of the sand, which can be removed easily through an aquarium siphon.

Note that sand can be stirred up and sucked into filters and pumps, potentially damaging your equipment or leaving a mess of sand flying everywhere.

Home of Live plants

While sand can be a challenging substrate for any live plant to establish a strong root structure due to its density, some species favored by apistos can thrive in this type of substrate.

Aquatic plants like Cryptocoryne, Limnophila, Java Moss, and Java Fern, which don’t require substantial root systems, can directly obtain most of their nutrients from the water. Sand provides a stable base for these plants, ensuring their roots grow well.

Aesthetic Appeal

Sand is naturally lighter and allows fishkeepers to create various aesthetically pleasing layouts and styles that serve as the perfect backdrop for Apistogrammas.

Its soft look makes it appear more naturalistic than gravel or other substrate mediums – the possibilities are endless.

Create Desirable Spawning Sites

Apistogramma ortegai in an Coconut Shell cave

In addition to the above ways the sand substrate benefits your Apistogramma fish, you definitely don’t want to overlook how it enhances their breeding process.

Apistogramma dwarf cichlids are secretive substrate and cave spawners, and you may observe a fascinating behavior where the female fish piles sand in the doorway of the spawning caves.

Sands Are Affordable

Spending a ton of money on substrate is likely the last thing you want to do. The expensive substrate won’t guarantee you desired results after all.

Thankfully, smooth sand is among the most cost-effective substrate option that won’t put a strain on your budget. They are widely available in any pet store or aquarium shop.

The Downside of Sand Substrate in Apistogramma Aquariums

Discussions about sand substrate often lead to heated debates. The biggest problem is that of compaction. 

Clearly, the compact nature of sand can create anaerobic areas underwater where there is insufficient water flow and oxygen exchange (oxygen concentration is <10 μM).

These zones can harbor heterotrophic bacteria that produce harmful hydrogen sulfide content during denitrification, in which they reverse the nitrogen cycle, converting nitrates back into toxic ammonia (NH₃).

This problem can be remedied in a typical freshwater aquarium by providing strong filtration and proper aeration. However, the perfect Apisto aquariums, as mentioned above, should be to imitate their natural environment with low to moderate water movement, increasing potential risks associated with it.

In order to compensate, here are several ways to combat this issue:

  • Your optimal sand substrate depth should not exceed an inch (2.5cm). Anything more tends to be problematic.
  • If you are not planning to add plants to the back or sides of your Apisto aquarium, you can place the sand in the open areas where they mostly sift through. (Related: Can You Mix Half Sand and Half Gravel in An Aquarium?)
  • As part of your aquarium maintenance routine, manually sift the sand. In most cases, it is unnecessary because Apistos chew it all the time, and they will keep it clean enough.

When Do I Need Bare Bottom in an Apistogramma Tank?

In certain situations, using sand substrate may not be necessary or even desirable.

Based on my experience running a local fish store and personally breeding fish to sell, I primarily use bare-bottom tanks for those grow-out tanks that require frequent water changes and quick elimination of waste from the substrate. Trust me, the ease of maintenance this brings has been a total game-changer for me and has made my life so much easier.

Moreover, Apistogramma fry are tiny creatures, and their translucent bodies make them hard to spot against sand or other substrates. As a result, they may end up being sucked into your siphon intakes during maintenance, which is deadly.

My quarantine and hospital tanks are also kept with bare-bottom setups for years. The reason is simple: no matter what type of substrate I use, it’s bound to shelter parasites, bacteria, and other diseases that could linger and infect the next inhabitant in the future.

Which Sand Substrate Should I Choose?

The three main types of sand substrates used in the South American species of dwarf cichlids hobby: pool filter sand, play sand, and aquarium sand. Play sand is among the most commonly used type.

The comparison table below summarizes the pros and cons of each type.

Aquarium SandPool Filter SandPlay Sand
ProsAvailable in a wide variety of colors
Larger Grains
Easy to clean
Fine (0.4-0.5mm)
Very fine (0.1 – 0.3 mm)
ConsExpensiveLimited colors
Tends to clump up
Must be thoroughly washed before use
Non-uniform grain sizes
Easy to clump up
Must be thoroughly washed before use

To avoid any health issues related to the sand substrate, choose sand that is made of 100% silica and contains no additives. Bright colors may look stunning, but they are likely to contain substances that are highly toxic to the fish. 


How Much Sand Substrate Should Be Used in an Apistogramma Aquarium?

It depends on the dimensions of your aquarium, but a general rule of thumb is to use no more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) of sand substrate. Use our Aquarium substrate calculator to get the exact amount for your tank.

Last Words

Sand is the best substrate choice for Apistogramma species and will make them feel comfortable at home while giving you peace of mind that their delicate gills are safe from sharper materials.

Remember to rinse it thoroughly before adding it to the tank, even though the bag is labeled as “pre-washed.”

Hopefully, this guide has given you some insights into why sand is the ideal substrate for your Apistogramma aquarium and which types are more suitable.

If you want to learn more tips and tricks about Apistogrammas care, we recommend that you check out our library of articles.

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Jeff Colt

Jeff Colt

Hello, I'm Jeff- an aquarium enthusiast with over 25 years of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish, including koi, goldfish bettas, cichlids and more! For me: Aquariums are like jello - there's always room for more!

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