Cichlids, For Dummies

If you have been following the “for Dummies” series the last few months you should now be pretty competent in keeping an assorted collection of common fishes alive and well in an attractively planted tank. Good for you. This is in itself a worthwhile endeavor, and you may well be happy to go no further in this hobby. But unfortunately, sooner or later you are going to come to the realization that your pretty little barbs are about as smart as a sack of hammers. That’s the problem with fish; they are colorful and interesting but they are too stupid to be real pets. Or at least your barbs are. Believe it or not, there is actually a group of fish that possess the basic intelligence required to recognize and respond to their owners. As well as the basic intelligence required to care for their young, rather than treat them as lunch, as do the lesser fishes. Furthermore, this group contains some of the most spectacularly colorful fish in the world. No wonder they are the most popular fish family in the aquarium hobby, with numerous local and international associations devoted to their care. These fish are, of course, the cichlids.

This article is intended to introduce the family Cichlidae to the novice, and (hopefully) spark enough interest that they will look into giving these fish a try. A good collection of cichlid books are in the CAS library and if you have Internet access, the Cichlid Home Page at provides a nice selection of color pictures and brief descriptions. I am sure you will find something you’ll like.

But first, the bad news. A lot of cichlids (pronounced SICK-lids) are pretty big as far as aquarium fish go, and they can be rough on each other and on your carefully tended plants. And not all of them possess their famous intelligence either (Lake Malawi cichlids are admittedly pretty dim). But remember, we are talking about a highly diverse family of hundreds of species distributed over much of Africa, South America, Central America, parts of Asia, and even parts of North America as well. So if one cichlid doesn’t strike your fancy, there are plenty that will.

For the purposes of aquarium culture, the cichlids can be broken up into several subgroups. The first group is the sissies. The most commonly kept cichlid, the angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), is in this group. Then there are the dwarves; these include fish of the genus Apistogramma, the rams, and the kribs. Then there are the typical substrate-spawning cichlids, which include all the big bruisers from south of the border (and a lot of African species as well). Then there are the African rift lake cichlids. And the tilapias. And finally, the chromides, who are the oddballs of the group.

First the sissies. These have the great advantage that they will get along fine in a community aquarium and won’t even dig up your plants. I would highly recommend cutting your cichlid teeth on the angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare). Get at least six young specimens and watch them grow up into an elegant school. The other sissy I would recommend is the festivum (Mesonauta spp.). They get along well with angelfish, and are often found in their company in the wild. Both the angelfish and festivum are fairly hardy fish that will adapt well to any reasonable water chemistry. Keep these fish in tanks of at least 150 liters capacity. However, I am reluctant to recommend the other sissies, like the discus (Symphysodon aequifasciatus). Leave these fish for the experts; they are expensive, adapt slowly to local water conditions, and are very delicate.

The sissies, by definition, don’t really belong in a tank with most other cichlid species. However, the dwarves are an exception; they are too small to beat even the sissies up. The most commonly seen dwarf cichlid is the kribensis (or krib) (Pelvicachromis pulcher) of West Africa. It is also one of the most colorful and among the hardiest of all the cichlids. Don’t be fooled by the washed out juveniles in the store. Adult kribs in good condition are very colorful (especially the females) and great fun to watch.

Most of the other dwarf cichlid species you are likely to find for sale are from South America, and are mainly in the Apistogramma and Papiliochromis (= Mikrogeophagus) genera. You would be well advised (as a novice) to pass these fish over, at least for now. They are persnickety little critters. Tanks as small as 40 liters are fine for kribs and the other dwarf cichlids.

The group of typical substrate-spawning cichlids includes all of the more robust and active cichlids of South and Central America. Substrate-spawning cichlids lay and tend their eggs on rocks and other bottom surfaces. These fish have a tendency to dig up plants so if you want to keep plants with them, you will need to keep only well-rooted, tough plants; and protect their roots with a buried egg crate or screen.

This group includes the favorites of most cichlidiophiles. The reasons for this popularity are easy to understand: they are the most intelligent of the cichlids; they make the most devoted parents; many are very attractive; and not all of them are all that large or all that nasty either. Moderately sized, relatively peaceable cichlids include the smaller “acaras” (cichlids of the Laetacara genus). The “earth eaters” (cichlids in and related to the genera Geophagus and Satanoperca) are also quite calm fishes, and so they can be kept together without inevitable mayhem. The earth eaters include some of the loveliest South American cichlids as well, but they do get larger than the Laetacara species. Some other larger cichlids that are sedate enough that they can be kept with suitable tank mates are the severum (Heros severus) and the rainbow cichlid (Herotilapia multispinosa). The Laetacara species and the rainbow cichlid can be kept in 120-liter tanks, but the others really deserve much larger quarters.

One of the most popular cichlids is the oscar (Astronotus ocellatus). One couldn’t recommend keeping this fish with any other species unless it’s in a very large tank (more than 600 liters) and the other fish are just as large as they are. Oscars just get too big and boisterous for community living. Young oscars raised together will often get along fine as adults, but you really need to provide at least 150 liters of water per fish if you want to house oscars. Be that as it may, oscars are very smart, make great pets, and are well worth owning. The same can be said for any of the big South and Central American cichlids, such as those of the genus Nandopsis.

Most slightly smaller South and Central American species in the 15cm to 20cm range (such as the Cichlasoma species) can be kept together in largish tanks (200 liters or larger), perhaps with large characins or barbs for company. There will inevitably be some fights, especially if the fish decide to breed, but cichlids are resilient critters and can take care of themselves. Plants in a cichlid community tank have to be protected from digging and be generally pretty robust, like the Vallisneria species.

The African rift lake cichlids include fish from Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria (even though Lake Victoria is strictly speaking not a rift lake). Rift lake fish like alkaline water and are ideal for local conditions.

The 1000 species or more of Lake Malawi cichlids include some of the most beautiful fish in the world (fresh water or otherwise). All of them are maternal mouth brooders (that is, the mothers carry eggs and young in their mouths). But the problem with that is that mouth brooders lack the intelligence and personality that made cichlids famous. Its as if they don’t need brains because they don’t have to deal with the problems of keeping a school of growing fry together and safe in the open water. Oh well. Beauty and intelligence has always been a rare combination.

The Lake Malawi cichlids can be subdivided into three major groups; the mbuna (pronounced um-BOO-nuh), the open water non-piscivores, and the piscivores.

The mbuna are the rock-dwelling fish, and include the fish in the genera Pseudotropheus, Labeotropheus, Melanochromis, Labidochromis, Petrotilapia, and a few others. Some of the most colorful fish in the world are in this group. Both the female and the male mbuna may have brilliant colors, but the intensity of the color is always greatest in dominant males. As a group they are a pretty rowdy bunch and should really not be kept with fish that are not also in their group, the exception being some of the gentler Labidochromis who are comparatively quite passive. But some exceptionally aggressive mbuna (like Melanochromis auratus) are difficult to keep together at all.

Mbuna need a lot of vegetable matter in their diet (again with the exception of Labidochromis) and will eat soft-leafed plants. They also require lots of rockwork and caves in their tanks. It is well advised that you keep them fairly crowded because the weakest mbuna always gets killed if they are kept in very small groups. Most mbuna are only about 12cm long or so (Petrotilapia species are a bit bigger) so they can be kept in medium-sized tank. Twelve in a 150-liter tank or 18 in a 200-liter tank make a nice display. They are also ridiculously easy to breed; the only hard part is catching the egg-carrying mother in an aquarium full of rocks!

The open water non-predatory fishes eat mostly plankton or sand-living invertebrates in the wild, but will adapt quite well to regular aquarium foods. They are generally not as aggressive as the mbuna. They also include some very colorful fish, but in their case it is generally only the males that have any color. The genera Copadichromis and Cyrtocara are among the many in this group, and the peacocks (genus Aulonocara) can be considered along with them as well. Most of these fish can be kept together but the females of many species are impossible to tell apart, so its not a good idea to keep closely related fishes in the same tank. They also vary considerably in size (some are quite big) but 10 cm to 20 cm is a typical length for the commonly seen species. Most can be kept in 150-liter or larger tanks.

The Lake Malawi piscivores will make a meal of any fish that will fit in their mouths, and many will also bully the non-predatory fishes too large to be swallowed. Like the non-piscivores, the piscivores tend to have very drab females, but the males also have the drawback that most of them show their best colors only during spawning time. The glaring exception to this is the electric blue (Sciaenochromis fryeri), whose males maintain a dazzling royal blue throughout their adult lives. Most Malawi piscivores get too large (30 cm or so) for anything but a very big tank (> 400 liters), but the electric blue, at a length of 18cm, can be housed in smaller quarters.

Lake Tanganyika also has its rock dwellers. Most of the commonly-sold ones are smaller and more peaceable than Lake Malawi’s mbuna, but they also (unfortunately) are much more expensive and delicate. The Tanganyika rock dwellers include fishes in the Tropheus, Julidochromis, and Neolamprologus genera.

Most Lake Tanganyikan rock dwellers are substrate spawners (Tropheus, being aggressive mouth brooders, are an exception), and so they demonstrate the parental care and intelligence that make the South American cichlids so endearing. Neolamprologus brichardi is a particularly intriguing species because parent fish will raise new batches of young with the help of their earlier hatchlings, who hang around until they are old enough to find mates of their own. They can be kept in tanks as small as 40 liters, but can quickly overpopulate such a tank.

Other small Lake Tanganyika cichlids that are very suitable for small tanks are the shell dwellers. Most of these fish are also placed in the Neolamprologus genus along with N. brichardi, but the shell dwellers include mainly the smaller species of the genus, such as N. ocellatus. The shell dwellers are all wonderful little fish to keep. Set them up in a smallish tank with a fine sand bottom and lots of snail shells that are a couple of inches in diameter.

The kings of Lake Tanganyika are the fronts (Cyphotilapia frontosa); a big, lump-headed piscivore that has a surprisingly gentle disposition. They are highly sought after, and make very good community tank fish provided that their tank mates are too large to eat. They do however require big tanks (400 liters or greater).

The commonly encountered Lake Victoria cichlids are all medium sized, fast moving fish with colorful males and relatively drab females. Most are fairly aggressive. Almost all of them are gravely endangered because of the environmental degradation of Lake Victoria, and soon many of these cichlids will be found only in our aquaria. Maintaining these fish is therefore a worthy undertaking in species preservation. Their tanks should be 150 liters or greater in size. Single-species tanks are preferred with several females per male.

The tilapias form a large African group that generally doesn’t have much in the way of either smarts or colors (one exception being Tilapia buttikoferi). Most are pretty big and rather boring fish. You are more apt to see them for sale as table fare in Asian supermarkets than as pets.

Also from Africa are the African river-dwelling cichlids. The kribs are also among this group, but they were mentioned previously along with the dwarves. The two other African riverines that the novice is likely to encounter are the jewelfish (Hemichromis spp.) and the buffalo head (Steatocranus casuarius).

There are many species or subspecies of Hemichromis that are sold as jewel fish, and some of them are spectacularly colorful fish with metallic blue spangles on an orange-red background. All of them are however quite aggressive and require a large crowded aquarium to themselves.

Much more peaceable are the buffalo heads (Steatocranus casuarius). These fish are lacking in color (being a dirty grey/brown) but have endearing goby-like personalities and clown-like heads. They will stay near the bottom of the tank and can be kept in 80-liter or larger tanks if they have good filtration (buffalo heads like currents).

The oddballs of the cichlid world are the chromides. They are from India and are the only cichlids that come from East Asia, and the only commonly sold cichlids that are naturally found in brackish water. They are peaceable enough, and the orange chromide (Etroplus maculatus) is also quite colorful. Keep them with some salt in the water, perhaps along with scats, puffers, and archer fish. They are moderately sized, and can be kept in 80-liter or larger tanks.

So, that’s an introduction to pretty much all the cichlids that are commonly sold in local pet stores. The CAS has members with great expertise in cichlid care and many members breed them as well, so any novice with suitable tank space can easily get all the livestock and help required to set up a thriving display of these fascinating animals.


The World Wide Web provides a good place to identify fishes and keep you up to date on the latest scientific names and new discoveries. It is less good at providing information on the care of the fishes. Specific questions on cichlid care can be answered in the Usenet newsgroup rec.aquaria.freshwater.cichlids, but books and magazine articles provide much better coverage on issues of general aquarium maintenance.

But if you want help identifying a fish or want to see some pictures of what’s available, the following web sites are good places to start (both have links to other potentially useful sites).

The Cichlid Home Page by Eric Gracyalny provides a list of most cichlid genera and lots of species, many with color photographs. At

The Cichlid Room Companion by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas has articles, large listings of links to other cichlid related sites, and listings of cichlid clubs, and numerous other things. At

If you don’t have access to the Internet, the following three books provide much the same kind of pictorial introduction to common cichlids. All within the CAS library and all by Tetra Press are: A Fishkeeper’s Guide to Central American Cichlids by David Sands; A Fishkeeper’s Guide to South American Cichlids by Dr. Wayne Leibel; and A Fishkeeper’s Guide to African Cichlids by Dr. Paul Loiselle. These books are good, but are thin (about 80 pages each) and therefore not very comprehensive.

The Cichlid Aquarium provides a much more comprehensive discussion on cichlid culture. It is also by Dr. Paul Loiselle and the Tetra Press. A copy is in the CAS library. Although a very good book, I do disagree with some of its assertions. Dr. Loiselle advocates much lower fish densities than I do for mbuna and other aggressive fish. It is most peoples’ experience that these fishes should be kept relatively crowded and heavy water changes and filtration be used to compensate.