With their beautiful colors and inquisitive personalities, it’s no wonder why cichlids are such a popular species to own among aquarists.
However, their aggressive nature and care needs can make them a bit difficult to keep, especially if you don’t do your research.
If you’re thinking of owning this fish and want to know a little more about what goes into their care, then you’re in the right place!
Here’s everything you need to know about keeping cichlid fish, including diet, tank setup, tankmates, and breeding…
What Are Cichlid Fish?
Cichlids are a species of freshwater fish from the family Cichlidae. There are at least 1,500 species of cichlid, with more species being discovered each year.
The majority of aquarium varieties are from Africa and South America, though some are from Europe and Asia.
Most species of cichlid are found in tropical America, Madagascar, and Africa.
However, some varieties are located in Asia and Europe.
A lot of cichlid varieties are African and are very prominent in the major African lakes such as Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Malawi.
In addition to being a popular fish to keep in home aquariums, many cichlid species are food sources…
One of the most common types of edible cichlid you’ve probably heard of is the tilapia.
Tilapias are eaten across the world and apparently don’t have a particularly fishy flavor!
Almost all African species of cichlid appear in one of the three major lakes in Africa: Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Malawi.
African cichlids make up the majority of cichlid species.
Asian varieties, however, are found in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, India, Iran, and Sri Lanka.
All species can be found in rivers, swamps, lakes, and even puddles and ditches. You don’t usually see them at high elevations.
These fish are incredibly vibrant and colorful…
They can come in pretty much any color you can think of, including red, blue, orange, yellow, and pink (albino).
Many varieties are available in an array of patterns and markings, too.
African Butterfly Cichlid
The African butterfly cichlid comes from the rivers of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Their base coloration is brown to yellow-brown with rows of iridescent spots of various colors (usually purple, blue, green, or yellow).
Five pale black bars extend from the back to the mid-section of the species.
While not as striking as other African cichlid types, they are a pretty little fish that only reaches around 3 inches in length.
Sunshine Peacock Cichlid
Sunshine peacocks are an aquarium strain of peacock cichlids that originate from Lake Malawi.
This fish gets its name due to its bright yellow coloring.
Females are rather dull in color, but males have a vivid yellow body with a blue face.
The species are one of the smaller varieties of these fish, reaching a maximum of 5 inches in length.
Blood-Red Parrot Cichlid
Blood-red parrots are considered a hybrid between the midas and redhead cichlid.
They are usually red, grey, or yellow in color.
This species is bred with a few deformities such as a narrow mouth (which restricts their ability to close it) and enlarged irises, which can make them prone to a few issues.
The convict cichlid or zebra cichlid is native to Central America.
This aquarium fish has a blue-grey body with 8 or 9 black vertical bars, just like the markings on a zebra!
Most specimens reach between 4 to 5 inches in size, but males can grow up to 6 inches.
Tiger oscars are incredibly stunning. They are large fishes that grow between 12 and 15 inches in size. They have a black body with orange or reddish markings.
Their colors will become more vibrant during mating and times of aggression.
Males are generally larger-bodied and more colorful than females. Females are often duller in color with paler patterns.
All cichlids have teeth, but the function of them will be different depending on the species.
Some fish have smaller rows of teeth for scraping algae off rocks, while others have teeth not dissimilar to fangs for hunting small fish.
An interesting aspect of African cichlids is that they regenerate their teeth every 100 days or so. This allows them to replace any teeth that have been damaged or lost.
How Do You Tell If They Are Male or Female?
In many species of cichlid fish, the male is slimmer but larger in length than the female.
Females tend to be duller in color than males, too.
Additionally, the anal and dorsal fins on male specimens are larger and have a more pointed shape.
Male African cichlid species usually have yellow spots (called “fin spots”) on their anal fins.
How Big Do They Get?
Cichlids come in a wide range of sizes, from the very small to the very large.
The smallest cichlid is the Neolamprologus multifasciatus (or “multies” for short) which grows to just 2 inches.
In comparison, the Cichlidae family’s largest species is the giant cichlid, which can reach lengths up to 3 ft (2.5 ft for females).
Do They Bite?
As all cichlids have teeth, they can bite if they are scared, threatened, or territorial.
However, these bites are rarely painful and won’t usually break the skin. The most you might feel is a bit of pressure.
Types of Cichlids
There are a staggering number of cichlid species, which gives you a lot of options when it comes to choosing one for your tank.
Here are some of the most popular species of cichlid you’ll come across in the fishkeeping hobby.
- Angelfish (Pterophyllum Genus)
- Electric Blue Cichlid (Sciaenochromis Fryeri)
- Discus fish (Symphysodon Genus)
- Convict Cichlid (Amatitlania Nigrofasciata)
- Peacock Cichlid (Aulonocara Jacobfreibergi)
- Sunshine Peacock Cichlid (Aulonocara Stuartgranti)
- Blood-Red Parrot Cichlid (Amphilophus Citrinellus x Paraneetroplus Synspilus)
- Cockatoo Cichlid (Apistogramma Cacatuoid
- Frontosa Cichlid (Cyphotilapia Frontosa)
- Oscar Cichlid (Astronotus Ocellatus)
- Yellow Lab Cichlid (Labidochromis Caeruleus)
- Jewel Cichlid (Hemichromis Bimaculatus)
- Kribensis Cichlid (Pelvicachromis Pulcher)
- Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys Meeki)
- Venustus Cichlid (Nimbochromis Venustus)
- Jack Dempsey Cichlid (Rocio Octofasciata)
African cichlids can even identify unfamiliar individuals in their tank by looking at the pattern around their eyes instead of other parts like their fins.
Researchers have found that African cichlids have a memory span of at least 12 days, which shows you how smart these fish are!
As long as you care for them properly, African cichlids (or any species of cichlid!) are wonderful fishes to own.
Can You Raise Them in Captivity?
The majority of African cichlids and other species can be bred in captivity under the right conditions.
Female specimens lay eggs, usually in caves that the male has dug out.
The male fertilizes the eggs externally and will guard them until they are ready to hatch.
Are Cichlids Good for Beginners?
Some species of cichlid are good for beginners, while others are more suited to experienced aquarists.
Discus and oscars aren’t the best options for beginners due to their complex care needs.
Apistogramma dwarf cichlids, convict cichlids, and species of African cichlids or rift valley lake cichlids are relatively hardy and are a better choice for those new to keeping fish.
How Long Do They Live For?
The average lifespan for these fish is different depending on the species.
For example, oscars can live for between 10 and 20 years, while butterfly dwarf fish usually only have a lifespan of around 1 year.
The majority of african cichlids and rift valley lake varieties have a lifespan of approximately 8 years.
As you can see, the lifespan of these fish is pretty varied.
Do They Die Easily?
African cichlids and rift valley lake specimens are relatively hardy fish, so they are reasonably easy to maintain and keep. Other species like oscars and convicts are also rather tough and robust.
However, varieties like discus are notoriously sensitive and challenging to keep. Even experienced aquarists can have a hard time keeping discus and other similar species alive. Look up the care requirements of the type of fish you want to get to ensure they’re the right match for you.
If you’re new to keeping freshwater fish, then you might be better off keeping more hardy and robust species from the Cichlidae line.
What Do Cichlids Eat?
Wild specimens feast on a range of foods, including insects, plants, crustaceans, and other fish.
Diet varies quite a bit between species, so make sure you look up the specific feeding requirements for the type of fish you want to get.
Peacock African cichlids are insectivores, which means they primarily eat insects.
African butterfly cichlids consume small fish, while electric yellow cichlids prefer a mixture of plants and meaty foods.
What Is the Best Food for Them?
Aquarium cichlids can be fed fish flakes, pellets, fresh vegetables, algae wafers, as well as live and frozen foods like bloodworms and brine shrimp.
You’ll need to look up the specific diet for the type of fish you want to get.
For example, herbivore species like Simochromis diagramma and specimens of the mbuna group will require fish flakes or pellets targeted for herbivorous fish, as well as algae wafers and fresh vegetables.
Oscars, on the other hand, prefer a diet that consists mainly of live foods like mussels, mealworms, shrimp, small fish, and plankton.
Most African cichlids are omnivores and can be fed sinking pellets or flakes as a primary food source.
You can also offer green vegetables like spinach and the occasional portion of live or frozen prey, like brine shrimp and bloodworms.
When feeding species like dwarf varieties, make sure the food you give them is small enough to fit inside their mouth.
This is especially true for blood-red parrots, as their mouth is beak-shaped and cannot fully close.
How Many Times a Day Should I Feed Cichlid Fish?
You should feed your cichlids two to three times a day as hungry fishes will be more aggressive.
Only give your fish as much as they can eat within a couple of minutes.
If any food is left after this time, remove it from your tank to prevent the water’s fouling.
Some aquarists fast their fish once a week to prevent overfeeding and to help maintain a steady water chemistry.
This isn’t mandatory for keeping these fish, however, and is mostly down to personal preference.
How Should I Feed Cichlids?
When it’s time to feed your fish, you can simply add their food directly to the tank for them to eat. You don’t need any special tools or equipment to feed your cichlids.
How Long Can African Cichlids Go Without Food?
A group of large and healthy cichlids can go around 7 to 10 days without food, while an aquarium packed with baby cichlids can go about 1 to 2 days without food.
After this time, you will need to make sure your fish have access to food.
Tank Setup – What Do They Like in Their Tank?
No matter what species of cichlids you decide to keep, it’s crucial your aquarium is set up correctly to accommodate their needs.
The best type of substrate to use for cichlids is sand, but you can also use crushed coral, coral sand, or crushed oyster shell to help maintain a good pH and alkalinity in your aquarium water.
Many species like digging and sifting through sand; some even eat a small amount to aid with digestion.
For larger cichlids like oscars, gravel can be used, but sand or other fine substrates is best for small to medium-sized cichlids and african cichlids.
African cichlids and a lot of other species in the Cichlidae family grow to a fairly large size, so you’ll need to make sure your tropical aquarium has a powerful filter.
Cichlids also have a big appetite, which means they produce a lot of waste.
If your filter isn’t strong enough, then it won’t be able to clean your african cichlid tank very well.
This can cause ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate to build up, which can have detrimental effects on your fish.
For african cichlids and larger cichlids like oscars, external canister filters are your best bet.
These are much more powerful than hang-on-back filters, internal filters, and other filter types.
Filter Flow Rate
You’ll need to make sure the filter you use has a suitable flow rate for the size of your freshwater fish tank.
As a rule, your filter should be able to clean three to five times the volume of your aquarium.
For example, if you have a 50-gallon african cichlid aquarium, then you’ll need a filter with a water flow rate of at least 150 to 250 gallons per hour (GPH).
However, this rule might be slightly different for tanks with heavy bioloads.
If your aquarium is overstocked and undersized, then you’ll need a much stronger filter.
Additionally, while many types of cichlids share similar habitat conditions, there are a few differences between them such as water movement.
African species from a major lake like Lake Victoria, Lake Malawi, and Lake Tanganyika don’t require as much water movement as South America species.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to choose a filter that has an adjustable flow rate so you can alter the water movement.
When keeping african cichlids and other freshwater fish, you’ll need to make sure your aquarium water is at an appropriate temperature.
All fish from the family Cichlidae are freshwater species, which means they need a warm environment to survive.
A lot of varieties are from East Africa and South America where the climate is very hot, so they cannot withstand cool waters.
To ensure your aquarium is warm enough for your cichlids, you’ll need to use a fish tank heater to heat their aquarium.
There are many different types of aquarium heaters, but the most common one is a submersible heater.
It doesn’t really matter which type of heater you use as they all have the same purpose (i.e. heat your tank!).
Aquarium lights are important for replicating a natural day and night cycle for your african cichlids, as well as for growing plants.
Even if you don’t have any live plants in your african cichlid aquarium, you’ll still need to use a light.
Many aquarists keep their tank lights on for 8 to 12 hours a day. If you keep them on any longer than this, it could cause an algae outbreak and stress out your fish.
Plants and Decorations
The type of plants and decorations you use in an aquarium with african cichlids and other species needs a bit of careful planning. Many cichlids eat or uproot live plants, especially when they are digging for food.
It’s best to select plant species that are hardy enough to withstand the destructive nature of cichlids.
Java fern, java moss, anubias, and vallisneria are a few species that can do well in an aquarium for cichlids.
If you don’t want to risk adding live plants to your aquarium, then you could use silk or plastic plants as an alternative.
In addition to real or fake plants, you’ll need to make sure your freshwater aquarium has plenty of caves, crevices, and hiding spots for your cichlids.
Adding these to your tank gives your fish a place to claim territory and retreat to when they feel threatened or scared.
For rock-dwelling cichlids like mbunas, caves are especially important.
Make sure when you are stacking up rocks to create caves, you pile them in a way that won’t collapse and potentially injure your fish.
Aquarium-safe glue can be useful for sticking rocks together and making your caves more sturdy.
What Size Tank Do They Need?
As there are so many types of cichlids, all of which are different sizes, the minimum aquarium size will vary.
Ideal Tank Size
For african cichlids, 30 gallons is usually a decent size. However, larger species will need a bigger tank.
One oscar needs at least a 55-gallon aquarium (ideally, 75 gallons and above), while a pair of dwarf cichlids can be kept in a 10 to 20-gallon tank.
If you want to keep multiple cichlids together, it’s best to get the largest aquarium you can afford. This helps reduce aggression between fish.
Like all freshwater fish, cichlids require specific water parameters to keep them happy and healthy.
To ensure your water remains healthy and clean for your cichlids, one of the most important tasks you’ll need to do regularly is water changes.
While a good-quality filter can do some of the work for you, it won’t make up for lack of water changes.
Importance of Water Change
If you don’t commit to frequent water changes, then ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate will build up to toxic levels and seriously impact the health of your fish.
In fact, even a small amount of ammonia or nitrite can be lethal to fish, particularly to more sensitive types.
How to Change Water
Water changes involve removing a small portion of aquarium water and replacing it with clean, new (dechlorinated) water. This process helps keep your water chemistry stable.
Many aquarists remove 20% to 30% of water from their aquarium each week. Bear in mind that your tank’s size and the number of fish you own will need to be taken into consideration.
A small and overstocked aquarium will benefit from larger and more frequent water changes than one that is big and understocked.
Cichlids originate from warm waters, so their tank needs to be at an appropriate temperature.
Many varieties come from Africa from major lakes like Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. African cichlids or Lake Malawi varieties do well at temperatures between 75 °F and 85 °F.
South American varieties also do well at temperatures between 75 °F and 85 °F. However, the pH level and water hardness for both these varieties will differ.
Water pH Level and Hardness
PH level preferences are different for each type of cichlids, so check the requirements for the fish you want to get. African lakes like Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika tend to have a pH level between 7.8 and 8.6.
If you want to keep cichlid african types, then you’ll need to make sure your aquarium has a pH between this range.
South American cichlids prefer their habitat slightly more acidic and do well at a pH between 6.0 and 7.5.
Like pH level preferences, water hardness preferences are different for each type of fish.
For varieties from East Africa, make sure your water is relatively hard (4 to 6 dH). For American varieties, make sure your water is quite soft (maximum of 2dH).
Like all pets, fish require quite a bit of work, time, and care. While you might think fish are relatively low-maintenance animals to keep, this certainly isn’t the case, especially for cichlids.
Once you’ve got your aquarium up and running, there are a few different maintenance tasks you’ll need to commit to keep your fish happy and healthy.
Cichlids will need to be fed a couple of times each day, as well as their aquarium cleaned each week.
You’ll also need to check your fish for signs of illness or disease each day and regularly check your tank equipment to ensure it is working correctly.
Additionally, you’ll also need to test your aquarium water on a regular basis (ideally once a week) to monitor your water parameters.
All of these tasks are crucial for keeping cichlids and other fish.
While we all get a bit behind on things every now and again, maintenance on your aquarium tank is something you shouldn’t slack on.
If you’re new to fishkeeping, then make sure you have the time to care and maintain a tank for cichlids.
Why Are My Cichlids Always Hungry?
Cichlids will often always appear hungry and will beg for food when they see their owner approach their tank.
This is completely normal, as fish are opportunistic feeders.
Wild african cichlids, rift valley lake types, and other varieties will eat whenever the opportunity presents itself as they don’t know when their next meal will be.
In captivity, lack of food isn’t a problem, but your cichlids don’t know this.
That’s why you should only feed your cichlids as much as they can eat within a couple of minutes.
If allowed, these fish will gorge themselves.
Are Cichlid Fish Aggressive?
Cichlids are well known for their aggressive nature, but some varieties are more aggressive than others.
When keeping african cichlids or any fish from the cichlidae family, it’s crucial that you do your research when it comes to selecting appropriate tankmates.
Housing multiple cichlids together can result in disaster if the varieties are incompatible.
Some types are territorial towards other freshwater fish, too, which is why you need to tread carefully with stocking options.
What Is the Most Aggressive Cichlid Fish?
Big varieties tend to be more aggressive than smaller varieties, but even small fish can be territorial.
Some of the most aggressive cichlids include umbees, wolf cichlids, and dovii.
The most aggressive cichlids african varieties of Lake Malawi are usually from the genus Melanochromis (like M. chipokae and M. auratus) or the genus Maylandia (like M. crabro).
Do They Eat Other Fish?
Due to their aggressive nature, cichlids will chase and even kill other fish if tankmates are not chosen correctly.
Many larger varieties like oscars consume small fish, so they are unsuitable for tanks that house tiny fish.
Some even have a feeding territory that they will protect from other fish.
This is usually an area in a lake or river that the individual attempts to claim for itself.
As these fish are known for their aggressive personalities, you need to be extremely careful when choosing tankmates.
Different varieties will have varying levels of aggression, with some being more territorial than others.
What Fish Can They Be Housed With?
If you want to keep cichlids in a community tank, your stocking choices are a little limited.
However, that’s not to say that all fish are off-limits. Some species that often get along with african cichlids include clown loaches, plecos, african red-eyed tetras, giant danios, rainbow fish, and red-tailed sharks.
Avoid slow-moving fish and those that are small enough to fit inside your cichlid’s mouth. Cichlids, especially big varieties like oscars, will attempt to eat tiny fish.
How Many Should You Keep Together?
Housing multiple cichlids of different varieties together is a process that requires a lot of planning.
There is always a risk when keeping numerous cichlids together, so you’ll need to decide whether that is a risk you’re willing to take.
Cichlids do best when housed in a species only tank.
You’ll need a large tank with plenty of hiding spaces to help spread out the aggression between cichlids. Maintain a male-to-female ratio of 1:3 as males are very territorial, particularly towards other males.
It’s best not to mix species, but if you must, then make sure the varieties are from the same continent.
African cichlids should be kept with other african varieties, whereas south american types should be kept with other south american specimens.
Can I Keep Just One?
Most african cichlids and other varieties do best when kept with their own kind, but some can survive alone.
It’s best to keep these fish in at least a breeding pair to ensure they do not get lonely
Oscars, however, are often kept by themselves due to their big size and extreme aggression.
Signs of a Healthy Fish
Healthy cichlids will have a strong appetite, good coloration, and have eyes that look alert.
Their fins will be immaculate without any white edges, fraying, or tearing.
They will be active and swimming freely without displaying any antisocial behavior like lying on the bottom of the tank.
If your fish is sick or stressed, there are a few signs you’ll need to look out for…
Unhealthy specimens might display the following signs:
- Hazy or cloudy eyes
- Missing scales
- Lesions, cuts, or wounds on the body
- Abnormal swimming pattern
- Clamped fins
- Poor appetite
- Pale or dull coloration
- Torn or fraying fins
- Reddish gills
- Antisocial behavior
- Rapid breathing
- Stringy white feces
Malawi bloat is a common disease that primarily affects african cichlids, but it can also occur in other varieties.
Malawi bloat’s exact cause isn’t known, but some aquarists believe it is caused by a protozoan that resides in african cichlids’ intestines
If your tank water quality drops and your fish become stressed, then the protozoans breed can cause an array of issues.
Symptoms of this disease include poor appetite, rapid breathing, discolored feces, and a swollen abdomen.
One of the most important steps for treating malawi bloat is improving the quality of your water.
You should also dose your tank with Metronidazole.
Ich (also known as white spot disease) is caused by a parasite known as Ichthyophthirius multifiliis.
You can easily identify this disease as your fish’s body will be covered in tiny white spots, kind of like they’ve been coated in salt.
Other signs might include labored breathing, poor appetite, clamped fins, listliness, and rubbing against objects or decor.
Ich is highly contagious, so it’s likely to eventually affect all the fish in your tank even if you only spot symptoms in one individual.
There are a few different treatments for ich, but the most common one is using malachite green. Salt baths and increasing the temperature of your tank can also help.
Cotton Wool Disease
Like ich, cotton wool disease is another condition that is quite easy to identify.
Fuzzy white growths will form on your fish’s head, scales, and fins.
Cotton wool disease is caused by a fungus that naturally occurs in your aquarium, but it only becomes an issue when your water quality drops.
Stress and injury also increase your fish’s chances of developing a fungal infection.
The most popular treatments for this disease are antifungal medications and salt baths.
Mouthbrooders keep their fertilized eggs in their mouths until they are ready to hatch (usually after around 21 days).
Most varieties from Africa that occupy Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria are mouthbrooders.
Many South American types lay their eggs in the substrate and guard them until they are ready to hatch.
During this time, the parents will be very aggressive towards other fish.
The fry can take some time to mature, though this differs between varieties.
Some types get their adult colors after a few months and are sexually mature within a year, while others might take up to a year to gain their adult colors.
Can They Breed in Captivity?
Many african cichlids and other varieties are easy to breed in captivity.
In fact, if kept in breeding pairs, these fish will usually mate with little intervention.
One example is the convict, which reproduces readily in home aquariums.
It’s actually not recommended to keep convicts in pairs as they breed very frequently, which can result in being overrun with fry!
How Do I Get African Cichlids to Breed?
You don’t have to do much to get your african cichlids to breed other than letting nature take its course.
They don’t require specific water parameters to breed, unlike many other types of fish.
If your african cichlids have successfully mated, then the female will usually hide away and be less enthusiastic when feeding.
Identifying Pregnant Cichlid
One of the easiest ways to identify a pregnant female is to look at the bottom of her mouth.
If she is indeed pregnant, you will notice a bulge at the bottom of her mouth, especially when she is feeding.
Separating Pregnant African Cichlid
What do I do once my African Cichlid is pregnant?
Whether you separate the pregnant female or keep her with your other cichlids is open to interpretation.
Putting her in a breeding tank with unfamiliar surroundings and isolated from other fish can cause unnecessary stress.
However, other tank mates might stress her out and result in her spitting out her fry early.
The fry are also at risk of being eaten by other fish.
Provide Hiding Spaces
Either way, make sure there are plenty of hiding spaces and crevices for the fry to retreat to when the female releases them.
Once the fry are free swimming, place them in a separate tank.
Feeding Newly Hatched Fry
The fry won’t feed for the first few days after they are released as the remains of their yolk sac will provide them with all the nourishment they need.
After this time, you can start feeding them.
You can feed them commercial foods for fry or newly hatched brine shrimp 3 times a day.
After a few weeks, the fry should be able to eat crushed up pellet or flake food.
Once the young have grown to around 2 inches in size, you can consider adding them to their parents’ tank.
Cichlids are incredibly colorful and interesting fish, so it’s not hard to figure out why they’re so popular among aquarists.
There are over 1,500 varieties of this fish, most of which are commonly available in the fishkeeping hobby.
The majority of varieties are african cichlids varieties that come from the rift valley lakes in Africa, especially Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. South American species are also quite popular.
Tank Size and Diet
They require a relatively big tank, especially when keeping multiple specimens together.
These fish are big feeders and need a nutritious diet that accommodates their dietary needs.
Most varieties are omnivores, but some are herbivores.
Water Requirements & Behavior
Different varieties do require slightly different water requirements, so make sure you look up the specific tank requirements for the one you want to own.
All types are aggressive in nature, so they do best in species-only tanks. They can be kept with other fish with some careful planning. However, it’s not recommended to house multiple species together.
Despite their grumpy attitude, cichlids hit all the marks in other factors. They have beautiful colors, big personalities, and can even recognize and interact with their owners!