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Cichlids Complete Guide

Did you just start a new freshwater fish tank? Perhaps you are looking to add new inhabitants to your pre-existing tank. Whichever situation is true for you, you should know that there are plenty of options for you to choose from when it comes to choosing fish for your tank.

It can be difficult to find the perfect fit. There are so many concerns to factor in, such as what these creatures like to eat and how they will get along with other fish in your tank. While cichlids are known for being a bit aggressive, they are nonetheless relatively easy to care for. Although there are some accommodations you will need to make in order to keep them happy, raising cichlids should not be considered a daunting task for novice fishkeepers.

Ready to learn more? In our article, we will give you a thorough overview of everything you need to know about cichlids, one of the best and most entertaining freshwater fish species you can raise. We’ll also tell you about some of the more popular cichlid species so that you will know everything you need to get started in your new adventure.


What Are Cichlids?

Photo by Jeff McClain

The Cichlid family is a unique group of freshwater fish from the Cichlidae family. One of the most families of vertebrates, the Cichlidae family has over 1600 species! In addition, new varieties of species are being discovered every day.

Today, you can find cichlids in many corners of the world, but typically only in tropical areas. That being said, they are one of the most popular freshwater fish species you can raise, so you’ll also find them in many fishkeepers’ homes.

These fish are native to Africa and South America, but there are a few species that are found naturally in Europe and Asia as well. African cichlids tend to hail from one of Africa’s three large lakes: Lake Victoria, Lake Malawi, or Lake Tanganyika. These hold the most species of cichlids out of anywhere else in the world.

In South America, you can find many kinds of cichlids in the Amazon River. However, some are also found in slow-moving streams across the continent as well as select locations in Central America. There are small groups of tiny cichlids in South American rainforests. These are known as dwarf cichlids, and they only grow to about half an inch in length.

Cichlids are incredibly popular for home aquariums, largely because they have active behaviors and gorgeous color patterns that make them a star choice for a home fish tank. They are also relatively hadry, making them easy to care for if you are a beginning fishkeeper.

Unfortunately, they do have a tendency to be somewhat aggressive. This predatory behavior makes them slightly more difficult to care for when you compare them to other tropical fish. Nonetheless, this diverse species is one to consider for your freshwater tank.

How Do Cichlids Behave?

Photo by Said Efe

While there is some variation among the different cichlids, most cichlid species are extremely aggressive. This is a problem that has not been bred out of the species over generations. Instead, cichlids continue to be territorial, claiming territories and attacking any fish that happen to swim by, either accidentally or on purpose.

Although they are aggressive, you shouldn’t be afraid of raising them. Being aware of how to handle these fish is the best way to manage them. Maintain a tank with proper living conditions and choose the proper tank mates, and you shouldn’t have too many issues.

For example, watch your fish carefully for any disturbances. If you see two males locking lips together, they are engaged in a fight. Usually, males will fight if they are in disagreement over their territories or if they are trying to show off for the females. If you see a male and female locking lips, this means something completely different – it means that they are courting.

Watch the fish for a while. You will notice that most of their days are spent scavenging in the substrate for food, which requires them to dig deep and stir up particles. While they are digging, they have a tendency to knock over decorations in the tank. Try to secure anything you place in the tank, whether it’s plants or decorations, to make sure your fish don’t become trapped.

Cichlids do not have a tendency to shoal. Therefore, if you are looking for a shoaling species, this might not be your best bet. However, they are still extremely active, social swimmers. They love to swim and will jump out of the tank if you don’t have a snug-fitting lid. They will also pair up when they mate.

Occasionally, you might notice one of your cichlids engaging in an odd behavior or pattern of rubbing. This usually is the result of a parasite like velvet or ich, which can be prevented by improving the water quality in your tank. Sometimes, this rubbing behavior is caused by a breeding behavior. Other species of cichlids will rub in order to clean the surfaces of your tank. This is done before laying eggs.

If you’re unsure about a behavior your cichlid is demonstrating, make sure you do some research about your specific breed. This will let you know whether to expect new fry soon, or whether you are dealing with an infectious disease in your fish tank.

What Are The Most Popular Types Of Cichlids?

Photo by Brian Gratwicke

With over 1600 recognized types of cichlids in the world, there is plenty of variation among the species – as well as plenty to choose from! Here are some of the most popular, well-known species within the cichlidae family.


Photo by Mar

These fish are one of the three species of cichlids known to inhabit Lake Malawi, a great lake in Africa. This group of fish consists of piscivorous fish. These creatures have long bodies that are usually silver or grey when they are young. Males become somewhat brighter as they age and enter sexual maturity.



Peacocks, which are cichlids belonging to the genus Aulonocara, are also very brightly colored. Both males and females are colored, but males tend to have a brighter display. They can grow up to six inches in length, and there are several types of peacock cichlids, all of which can be differentiated by their different body shapes. These cichlids are also native to Lake Malawi.


Mbuna cichlids, also found in Lake Malawi, are some of the most dazzling fish you will see. They have gorgeous colors which vary depending on the specific pieces. Zebra cichlids are some of the most popular freshwater tank inhabitants. These rock dwelling fish grow to about five inches in length and, as the name implies, have a gorgeous striped pattern.

Lake Victoria Cichlids

There are too many species of Lake Victoria cichlids to name them all here, but what you need to know is that most Lake Victoria cichlids are moderately sized, most growing no larger than seven inches in length. They can be sleek and bullet-shaped or large and robust. Their colors can also vary – there are ruby green cichlids, Kenya gold cichlids, and many more.

Unfortunately, while Lake Victoria used to contain over 500 species, that is no longer the case. Many of these species have been eliminated due to the introduction of the invasive Nile Perch.

Lake Tanganyika Cichlids

Lake Tanganyika is another of the African great lakes. Home to the largest species of cichlid, Boulengerochromis microlepis, which grows to three feet in length, the lake also has a number of other species. Some are as small as an inch in length, while others are much larger. They also come in multiple different sizes and shapes.


Angelfish are some of the most popular types of cichlids, hailing from South America. Though they are a small genus, they have grown to rapid popularity in the fishkeeping world. These fish have long, elegant fins that make it taller than most fish. Ti can reach up to ten or eleven inches in height! Therefore, you will need a tall tank if you are keeping angelfish. This gorgeous creatures can be found in various colors, like white, orange, and more. Many angelfish also have black vertical stripes across the length of their bodies.

Convict Cichlids

Convict cichlids are found with black and white stripes that run across their bodies. As a result, they are often confused for zebra cichlids. However, convict cichlids are native to South America and not Africa. These fish tend to be found in large streams or rivers. Males grow up to six inches in length and have large fins.

Midas Cichlids

Midas cichlids are found in several different colors. This is not a natural trait but rather one that has come about as the result of captive breeding. These fish are found in many colors, such as bright orange. Adults are large, usually growing to about 15 inches in size. They all have unique bump on their heads as well.

What Kind Of Tank Do You Need For Raising Cichlids?

Photo by Robert

The ideal cichlid tank will need to take your specific species of cichlid in mind. While most cichlids occupy similar environments, there are major differences between them all, too. For example, African species, because they are native to lakes, don’t need very much water movement at all. On the contrary, those that are raised in the rivers and streams of South American need a strong current in order to thrive.

Research the exact species of cichlid you intend to raise. This will give you a clearer idea of what the preferences of your fish might be. A happy fish whose preferences have been met is also a healthy fish!

Consider placing a softer substrate at the bottom of the tank. This will help your cichlids because they like to dig – if you have a soft substrate, like sand, your fish can dig all day without getting scratched by sharp stones.

You will also need to provide lots of hiding places. Because cichlids are more aggressive and like to have their own territories, providing a hiding spot will give your fish a place to escape to when others are displaying aggressive behavior. Rock-dwelling cichlids will require caves, so you will need to set some of these up. Remember that caves can be dangerous if you aren’t careful when stacking them. Use aquarium-safe glue to hold them together.

You can add aquarium plants, but it’s not necessarily recommended. Many species of cichlids are known for uprooting or eating plants as they search for food. Either eschew adding plants altogether or consider using plants that are known for being more resilient.

Some good options are Java ferns and Amazon Swords. Both of these tend to be left alone by cichlids, and while no plant option is foolproof, these are some good options to consider.

You need very little special equipment when it comes to setting up your tank. Invest in a good filter, as cichlids produce an astonishing amount of bioload and waste in the tank. You will need a filter that is able to process all of the water five times an hour in the tank. You also will need a heater to keep the temperature of the tank between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

While most cichlids like warm temperatures, they all have different preferences when it comes to water hardness, pH, and water flow. Species from African lakes prefer hard waters, ranging from 4 to 6 dH, while South American species prefer soft water at less than 2 dH. For pH, keep it between 7.8 and 8 for African species and 6.0 and 7.5 for South American fish.

You might need to add a water pump or air pump to create small amounts of water movement. Again, this will depend on the type of cichlid you have. You may be able to get away with no filter at all if you have a cichlid species that is from one of Africa’s lakes.

While thirty gallons is a large enough tank for most species of cichlids, that is not true for all of them. If you have large cichlids that are known to grow over seven inches, you will need a tank that is at least fifty gallons in volume. Just one midas cichlid needs at least 60 gallons of water! Remember, the more fish you have, the bigger the tank you need – and a bigger tank is always going to be better.

Once you get your tank set up and ready to go for your cichlids, there’s not much else you need to do. Keep it clean by performing weekly or biweekly water changes, and you will be good to go.

What Are The Best Tank Mates For Cichlids?

Photo by Owenmhv

Because cichlids tend to be more aggressive, you should avoid housing them with other aggressive fish species. While many people keep just a single cichlid on its own – or with members of its own species – you are not limited to this option alone.

Try to select fish species that will occupy different areas of the tank. For example, you could select bottom-dwelling fish, who tend to avoid free-swimming cichlids. You might also want to add other fish that live at the bottom of the tank, like clown loaches or red tail sharks. However, you would want to avoid aggressive free-swimming fish like leopard bushfish.

Any fish you add to your tank must be a similar size as the cichlid so that they can defend themselves. There are some smaller species that you can keep, like giant danios, which are large enough so they won’t be viewed as prey but also large enough to defend themselves.

Another good choice for a cichlid companion is the African catfish. This is a good choice because they are quick, large, and territorial. They can easily defend themselves against your cichlids, but they are also from similar environments. Therefore, setting up your tank will be easy to do. You might also consider the bristlenose pleco, which fits into this category.

There are some small fish you should avoid in your tank. Tetras, for example, will be viewed as a source of food. Remember, if your tank is large enough, you may be able to get by with any kind of fish – as long as you take good care of it. Try not to mix species of cichlids together that are from different continents. For example, don’t mix African cichlids with South American cichlids.

Why? Not only did they evolve on different continents, meaning they have different immune systems, but they may have different environmental needs. Furthermore, when kept together, it is possible that one species could make the other extremely sick.

Try to keep small fish from the same area in the same tank. Smaller species of cichlids tend to be less aggressive, and if they are naturally from the same area they will be able to handle the same environments.

If you are a more advanced fishkeeper, you might want to consider a unique technique known as crowding. This is a method used to reduce aggression and involves overstocking the tank slightly so that it is easy for aggressive fish to lose sight of their victims. This allows you to keep more individuals without increasing the likelihood of fights. This is something seen quite frequently in the wild, particularly in the great lakes of Africa where there are dozens of fish for every square meter.

However, this is a very advanced technique that should not be attempted by novice fishkeepers. There is a high capacity for error and you don’t want to increase the likelihood of fighting in your tank.

What Should You Feed Cichlids?

Cichlids can be fed a very wide, varied diet. You can feed them just about anything, as they will also consume varied diets in the aquarium. Each species will consume a different type of food, with some preferring meat and others preferring plants. In reality, most species will consume any kind of food – as long as there is a variety and plenty of food to boot!

You can feed your fish a mixture of storebought and homemade, DIY fish foods. While flake foods will be the main component of your cichlids’ diet, you and also add other foods as an occasional supplement or treat.

If you are raising a bottom-dwelling cichlid, you will want to feed them pellet or wafer food on a regular basis. This food will sit on the substrate and the fish will notice it when they scavenge. This kind of food is more likely to slip past the fish that are occupying the higher levels of the tank, so it will be easier for your cichlids to find.

Some types of cichlids, like convicts and peacocks, are insectivores, you can add in frozen or lie insects as occasional treats. Others, like Mbuna, are herbivorous. You should feed them mostly plant matter, like algae wafers. You can also add raw vegetables from the kitchen, which is a great way to add any nutrients that your fish might be missing out on.

Try to feed your cichlids a couple of times each day. Only give them the amount that will be completely consumed with two to three minutes. Aggressive fish will become even more aggressive if they are not fed enough. That being said, it is also extremely easy to overfeed your cichlids, which can lead to serious health problems. As a general rule of thumb, if your cichlids aren’t interested in feeding time, they are either sick or overfed.

How Should You Care for Cichlids?

Cichlids are not finicky fish, and while they do have some diseases to which they are prone, they are generally a robust, healthy group. Since there are so many species, it is difficult to give a comprehensive overview of everything that can affect them. However, there are generally a handful of diseases that might affect your cichlids.

Malawi bloat is very common among African cichlids, as you might expect. This disease causes a fish to lose its appetite. Ultimately, it will also lead to abdominal swelling. This disease is caused by overeating and so the remedy is quite simple – stop feeding your fish so much.

Another common issue for cichlids, as with most freshwater fish species, is parasite the most common parasitic diseases are velvet disease and ich, both of which lead to skin and respiratory problems. Gill flukes are also common, and these are a parasite that covers the gills of the fish in slime.

Try to feed your fish regularly and make sure you are staying on top of any behavioral or cleanliness issues in the tank. Cleaning every other week or so can help keep nitrates low and your fish healthy.

Can You Breed Cichlids?

Many people invest in cichlids with the ultimate goal of breeding them. As long as you keep your fish in a healthy environment, you should be able to do this without any problems. Cichlids usually begin their breeding processes by starting with an intensive courting display. This display allows them to show off their colors and is quite entertaining to behold.

All types of cichlids will lay eggs, but they do this in different manners. While some lay eggs on the bottom of the fish tank, others are mouthbrooders, which are fish that carry fertilized eggs in their mouths until they hatch. This usually takes about three weeks and is a process favored by African cichlids like Mbunas, Peacocks, and Haps.

South American cichlids, on the other hand, are far more likely to simply lay their eggs on the surface and keep an eye on them until they hatch. While they are waiting for their young to hatch, cichlids are extremely aggressive. Females usually look after them for a week or two before they are ready to be bred again.

Young cichlids take some time to mature. This varies for every type of cichlid. Some take three months, while others might take six. Since cichlids live for unexceptionally long amount of time, this time is just a drop in the bucket to the average fishkeeper. Young cichlids can be fed a specialized diet with small pieces of food. This should be done until they are old enough to eat larger pieces of food.

If you are interested in breeding your cichlids, maintain an aquarium environment that has consistent parameters at all times. Don’t move any of your decorations or add fish. Instead, ensure that the parameters of the water are consistent. Once your cichlids are comfortable, they will begin to breed. For best results, keep cichlids at a ratio of one male to four or five females.

Are Cichlids Right For You?

If you’re interested in raising an entertaining, gorgeous species of fish in your freshwater tank, consider a cichlid. With so many different individual species to choose from, your options are virtually limitless. While these fish can be a bit expensive to purchase – most start at around $5 but rarer breeds can cost $100 or more – they are absolutely worth it. Consider starting a cichlid tank today for years of enjoyment.

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