Apistogramma Cichlids: The Complete Care Guide

If you have ever raised a cichlid before, you probably already know how fun these creatures can be to raise! There are dozens of types of cichlids in the world, but if you’re looking for a small, vibrantly colored fish with plenty of personality to add to your aquarium, you should consider the Apistogramma cichlid.

Also known simply as Apistos, this fish species can be a bit challenging to care for – but the extra hassle is well worth it. A gorgeous fish, the dwarf cichlid makes the perfect addition to any freshwater tank.

Ready to get started? In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know in order to raise one of these fun-loving fish.


Behavior And Background

Apistogramma Cichlids 1
Photo by Aquarianer Schweiz

Known formally as the Apistogramma Cichlid, Apistos have peaceful demeanors and are relatively difficult to care for. These cichlids are also commonly referred to as dwarf cichlids.

No matter what you want to call them, there are over 90 species of these fish, all from South America. The specific environment will vary slightly between species, but usually, these fish like to hang out in warm, shallow waters that have plenty of plants and plant matter.

There are several variations of dwarf cichlids, all of which have varying temperaments. You should pick the apistos that works best for you, your preferences, and your aquarium. These fish have beautiful colors and are gentle, enjoying their time as they explore the tank.

These fish are generally quite peaceful, although they can sometimes become aggressive toward other tank mates if there is not enough space or it is during the breeding period.

Apistos can usually be found in partially shaded waters. These waters tend to be somewhat acidic and quite soft. In your tank, you should give them a soft, sandy substrate and lots of hiding places and plants to mimic this environment – dwarf cichlids love to burrow and hide.

If you provide your dwarf cichlids with the appropriate care, you can expect them to live between five and ten years. As a result, they are some of the best species for dedicated aquarium hobbyists. They reach sexual maturity at around four or five months, at which time it is not too difficult to breed them.


Apistogramma Cichlids 2
Photo by Aquarianer Schweiz

Apistos cichlids are dwarf cichlids, meaning they are much smaller than other species of cichlids. Although the males can grow quite large, often reaching 10 centimeters or more, females tend to stay smaller at around 5 centimeters.

Otherwise, the appearance of this fish can vary dramatically between individual dwarf cichlid species. We will detail some of the most common types of apistogramma cichlids below.

Types Of Apistogramma Cichlids

1 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid
Photo by majones32004

The cockatoo apistos cichlid is a very popular dwarf cichlid – largely because it has a unique appearance and is one of the easiest fish to care for and to breed. If you’re just starting out with raising apistogramma cichlids, this fish is the way to go. It will only grow to a maximum of eight centimeters, and can tolerate a wide range of temperature conditions – between 71 and 85 degrees are preferred.

2 Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlid

Apistogramma Cichlids 4
Photo by Daniel Piglesan

This is a gorgeous dwarf cichlid that has a tendency to be a bit aggressive and somewhat territorial. As a result, you will want to make sure this fish has plenty of places to hide and lots of space to swim around. A very common, brightly-colored fish, it is the perfect choice for any aquarium setting. It prefers temperatures between 72 and 80 degrees and a pH of 6.0. It is one of the larger dwarf cichlids you will find.

3 Yellow Dwarf Cichlid

This fish has gorgeous yellow and blue colors and is perfect for any community tank. It adapts easily to most environments and prefers cooler waters – usually between 68- and 78-degrees Fahrenheit. It is a smaller cichlid that can tolerate a wide range of pH levels as well.

4 Apistogramma Sunset

Apistogramma Cichlids 3
Photo by Aquarianer Schweiz

This fish is aptly named – it has yellow and orange colors that perfectly mimic a sunset. It is named for its distinctive colors and is highly adaptable. It is one of the most popular species of fish for aquarium hobbyists and can tolerate temperatures between 72 and 80 degrees.

Tank And Water Requirements

Apistogramma Cichlids 6
Photo by byndrbgr

Don’t let the word “dwarf” fool you – despite their small size, apistogramma cichlids still need to be kept in relatively large tanks.

How large, you might ask? In general, you should aim to keep your dwarf cichlid in a fish that is no smaller than 15 or 20 gallons. Apistogramma cichlids do not like to be left alone – ideally, you should keep them in pairs or in a group that contains a few females and a single male.

Otherwise, since these fish live close to the bottom of the tank, you can keep them with other tank mates. It is also recommended that you provide these fish with plenty of access to live plants and plant matter to improve their health. Many people add Indian almond leaves to the tank to adjust the pH and to make them feel at home.

As with most fish, you need to make sure you add a good filtration system to your tank. You should also be conducted weekly water changes of at least ⅓ of the water in the tank. You can always use a reverse osmosis water filtration if you desire, which will help keep the water soft and make tap water safe to be added to the aquarium.

Dwarf cichlids can be somewhat finicky when it comes to their water conditions, so we recommend testing the pH before you place them in the new environment, as well as several times a month as well. These fish do best in temperatures that range between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH should be between 6 and 7.

You must thoroughly cycle your tank before you add these fish to it. Test it regularly for ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites – this will ensure that your tank is safe and your fish will be healthy once you add them.

When you are setting up your tank, make sure you establish the perfect habitat before introducing your fish. The best tank will be a minimum of 20 gallons – but 25 to 30 gallons is ideal if you are housing more than just a couple of apistos. Keep them in long, wide tanks, since they prefer to hang out at the bottom of the tank.

Make sure you include a high-quality carbon filter. Since these fish prefer to live in water with minimal current, you will want to set your filter at the lowest setting and add a baffle if necessary to slow the flow of the water.

You might also want to add a reverse osmosis filtration system if you want to use tap water for your water changes. A heater is mandatory, unless your house will consistently be at least 70 degrees. Most cichlids need waters that are slightly warmer, so a heater can be a good safety net if you know your water will not get warm enough.

Since you will need to change the water in your tank weekly, it’s also a good idea to purchase a vacuum while you are at the pet store. Since dwarf cichlids prefer sandy substrates, you will need to be cautious when you are cleaning it. Using a vacuum can help make light work for this task.

Apistogramma Cichlids 5
Photo by byndrbgr

Apistos usually prefer sandy substrate with lots of live pants. You can also use fine gravel in a pinch, just make sure it is very fine. You should also be adding live plants to your apistos tank. These plants help your fish feel safe and at home – and luckily, apistos cichlids do well with just about any type of plant. Some to consider include java moss, java fern, water sprite, cryptocoryne, helanthium tenellum, and flame moss.

When you’re growing your plants, you may want to use root tabs. These can help keep your loose plants in place. You may anchor them to shells, decorations, or the bottom of the tank as well.

Decorations aren’t a must, but they can help your cichlids feel more at home. They also serve as a habitat for fry and eggs if you plan on breeding your cichlids. You might want to use caves or similar decorations that are designed specifically for use with cichlids.

You will also want to add a light to your tank. This is more for the plants than it is for the cichlids – they don’t need a ton of light. Your plants, however, will need light for photosynthesis. Your cichlids should adapt easily to a lighted setting despite the fact that many individuals are native to shaded environments.

Whatever you do, make sure you fully cycle your tank before adding your cichlids. Plants can be added while the tank is cycling, but do not add cichlids until you are sure the tank is ready for them. Test the pH and other water parameters before you introduce your fish.

What To Feed An Apistos Cichlid

Apistogramma cichlids usually will eat most frozen or live foods. As omnivores, dwarf cichlids can eat a variety of flake and pellet food – just make sure they are of a high quality. It also does not hurt to add foods like worms, brine shrimp, vegetables, and other plant-based foods to help keep your cichlids healthy.

Sinking foods, like sinking pellets, will always be best for Apistos cichlids. This is because these fish spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank.

Best Tank Mates For An Apistos Cichlid

Apistogramma cichlids should be kept in harems. This means that one male should be kept for every four or five female cichlids that you have. Dwarf cichlids must be kept in these groups to thrive, and maintaining these proportions will make it easier to breed your fish if you so choose. In addition, it will limit aggression during vital breeding periods, as your male can distribute his mating behaviors among multiple females.

Apistos cichlids get along well with a variety of tank mates. As long as you have plenty of room in your tank, you should have no problem introducing new friends. Some good species to consider include rasboras, neon tetras, cardinal tetras, splash tetras, pygmy cories, otocinclus catfish, black skirt tetras, and pencilfish.

While dwarf cichlids get along well with just about every type of fish, you need to be careful about keeping them with large fish species. These fish are often viewed as prey by larger species, and so you need to make sure you only keep them with fish of a comparable size.

You also need to avoid housing your apistogramma cichlids with any fin nippers. This can cause injury to the ornamental dorsal fins of your male dwarf cichlids. While dwarf cichlids are not usually aggressive or predatory in any way, they can easily become the target of other fish species’ aggression.

How Ro Breed Apistogramma Cichlids

Luckily, apistos cichlids are some of the easiest fish to breed therefore, if you are interested in breeding fish but have never done it before, the apistos cichlid might be the perfect fish for your new endeavor.

However, you will need to adjust the parameters in your tank to accommodate for ideal breeding conditions. For instance, you will want to have a tank with very little water flow. If you don’t already have a baffle on your filter, you should add one.

You may want to set up a breeding tank for your pairs to reproduce. Alternatively, you can let them breed in the main tank and then just transfer the fry to a different tank until they have matured enough to join the community tank.

Because dwarf cichlids require certain conditions in order to breed, it’s a good idea to use a separate breeding tank. This will reduce the impact that you have on the rest of your fish. In addition, mother cichlids are usually quite involved in raising their fry, so setting up a fry tank can help keep everyone together.

Breeding tanks require fewer fish transfer sand can improve these arrival rate of your fry. Make sure you test the conditions of your breeding tank before you move everyone. You might not need a heater, but keep in mind that dwarf cichlids are substantially more likely to breed in warm waters. A heater can help keep the temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees.

To begin breeding your dwarf cichlids, find a male and female pair that have already bonded. You can put them in a separate tank, which should be about 10 gallons. Make sure you only have one male, which will reduce territorial behaviors. If you do not have a bonded pair, you can set up your breeding tank and include several females and a single male to encourage breeding.

The water in this tank should be somewhat acidic and soft, with temperatures around 75 degrees. You should use materials from the original, larger tank to set up your breeding tank – this includes substrate, water, and filter media. You should also add live plants and hiding spots. Make sure you change the tank at about ten percent every day.

When you are setting up a breeding tank, it might be best for you to use a sponge or foam filter. This will ensure the safety of any fry that are born, as other filters can suck them in and cause them to get sucked in.

Feed your dwarf cichlids live food during breeding. This will help them stay healthy. You should also include a cave in which your females will lay their eggs. You will need to be able to tell your male and female dwarf cichlids apart at this time – the easiest way to do this is to look at the size differences between your fish. While males will have brighter colors, they will also be larger. In addition, they have unique dorsal fin plumage that females do not possess. Females will yellow in color during the breeding process, so this can help you tell them apart, too.

When your dwarf cichlids are ready to breed, the females will turn yellow and the males, too, will become brighter. You should increase the temperature in your tank to about 80 degrees to continue to encourage them. Thief emails will claim their territory in the caves, and she will coax the male in to fertilize her eggs. Then, she will chase him away.

Females can lay up to 80 eggs at once. They will spend up to five days guarding their caves and watching their eggs. Once they are ready to hatch, she will lead the fry out of the cave to search for their food.

During this time period, do your best to limit your involvement with the tank. Keep the lights low and wait for the mother fish to continue caring for her young. While they are first starting out, the young fry will eat algae in the tank. The mother will defend her young for four weeks and she will care for them. Although the male might try to help her, she will usually chase him off.

After about three days after hatching, the fry can eat live food like baby brine shrimp or specially formulated fried food. You should feed the fry regularly and keep your tank extremely clean – fry are quite vulnerable to changes in ammonia.

When your fry have gotten older, you can switch them over to flake or live food. Make sure you give them a varied diet. The fry will exhibit characteristic stripes within just a few weeks and will reach sexual maturity at four months of age. When your fry have matured, you can move them back to the main tank or keep them in the breeding tank if you are ready to produce another generation of dwarf cichlids.

Is An Apistogramma Cichlid Right For You?

So what do you think – do you have what it takes to raise a dwarf cichlid? We think so! Although there are some specific conditions you will need to meet in order to raise one of these lovely fish, raising a dwarf cichlid is not overly challenging and can be accomplished by most beginner fish keepers. Make sure you have all the equipment you need to get started and be sure to thoroughly cycle your tank. Other than that, you are ready to pick out the best type of cichlid for your new tank!

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