African Cichlid 101: Care Guide, Types, Behavior & More

Cichlids are very popular freshwater fish and can be found in tropical lakes and rivers in South America, Africa, and India.

African Cichlids come from Africa’s 3 great lakes: Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria.

They are incredibly colorful but are notorious for being aggressive and territorial.

Some species like Yellow Labs and Blue Haps are beginner friendly. Other more aggressive species like the Jewelfish should only be kept by experienced keepers.

They are among the most diverse groups of freshwater fish and there is a Cichlid for every kind of keeper and every type of tank setup.

In this article we share with you the most popular species and also take you through the general care and tank setup requirements…

Appearance

Orange peacock

With over 1000 different species, African Cichlids are extremely diverse in terms of appearance and colors.

There are a few well-known groups of African Cichlids:

  • Mbunas: They are the most popular group in the hobby. Mbunas are rock-dwelling fish that live in caves at the bottom of the riverbed. Most are extremely territorial and will fiercely defend their homes from potential intruders.
  • Labidochromis: Labs are a more peaceful type of Mbuna. They range in size from 3 to 6 inches and there are 17 different species. The Yellow Lab is one of the most popular.
  • Haplochromis: This genus contains over 200 different species which are also classified as Mbunas. Haps can come in all different colors from turquoise blue to deep red to sunny yellow. The Blue Hap, Red Empress, and Tangerine Tiger are 3 well-known examples.
  • Peacocks: Peacock Cichlids come from the Aulonocara genus. They are among the most brightly colored fish in the family and can come in up to 4 colors at once. OB Peacocks are hybrids between 2 different species.
  • Dwarf Cichlids: Africa has its share of Dwarf Cichlids just as South America does. These small fish are usually under 4 inches long, and travel in schools of 5 to 10 individuals. They are peaceful and ideal for beginners. The Kribensis and the Daffodil Cichlids are 2 good examples.

Blue Cichlid

However, there are some physical features that distinguish all members of the family.

Most African Cichlids have strong, bulky bodies that are wide in the middle and around the head. Their sloping foreheads lead to a snout that is either pointed or upturned.

Just about every species has a total of 7 fins, including a dorsal fin, anal fin, caudal fin, a pair of pectoral fins, and a pair of pelvic fins.

The pharyngeal jaw is the main feature that makes a Cichlid a Cichlid. This is a second muscular jaw that is positioned behind the true jaw. The true jaw contains teeth, and the pharyngeal jaw contains a set of muscles that strengthens the fish’s bite.

Because of their second jaw, most Cichlids have very large lips.

Lots of male Cichlids have head humps too. In the wild this hump is used to attract mates. However, it does not always form in captivity. If the tank is too small then the hump may collapse or fail to develop at all.

The most common colors are green, red, blue, and yellow, although just about any color at all is possible. Many species come in two, three, or even four colors at once. They also have beautiful patterns such as stripes, dots, and lattices.

Common Types

Blue Dolphin: Although they are named after a dolphin, they are not as friendly. This semi-aggressive fish will not hesitate to go after others that intrude upon their territory, but it will not bother the other fish so long as they stay out of its way.

Daffodil: This African Cichlid is an adorable yellow and gold color with a lyre tail. They are small, peaceful, and perfect for keepers who are new to the Cichlidae family.

Demasoni: A blue and black striped Mbuna. Although they are only 3 inches long, they are extremely aggressive. They can live in a single species tank with a group made up of mainly females.

Emperor: The Emperor Cichlid is the largest Cichlid of all. They live in Lake Tanganyika and can grow up to 3 feet long. This species is extremely rare and must be kept in a large pond. Although they are not aggressive, they will eat anything that is smaller than they are.

Fairy: They are one of the best species for beginners. Fairy Cichlids are peaceful, but very shy, and must be kept in schools of between 6 and 8. They are too timid to have tank mates and enjoy hiding out in caves, behind rocks, and under shelves.

Frontosa: They look very similar to the South American Convict Cichlid with their black and white striped pattern. You will need at least an 80 gallon tank to house just one Frontosa, but this gives plenty of room to create a colorful Cichlid community.

Fuelleborni (Labeotropheus fuelleborni): They have a blue and black striped pattern with orange spots over their fins and face. Just like other Mbunas, they are aggressive and territorial. Do not keep them with other Mbunas that are too similar in appearance.

Golden Mbuna (Melanochromis auratus): This African Cichlid is a small striped Mbuna with a gold base color. They are one of the most aggressive Mbunas of all. They are notoriously difficult to keep in communities, but can be kept with other Mbunas as long as there is enough space for everybody.

Haplochromis: This genus contains many of the most colorful species. The most popular colors for the genus are blue, red, and yellow. The Blue Hap is a well-known beginner friendly species. Haps are non-territorial and relatively easy to place with other peaceful Peacock Cichlids.

Jewel: This is one of the most spectacular species in Lake Malawi. They come in beautiful bright red, orange, and pink colors with sparkling blue dots. They can live with other Jewels so long as there are more females than males.

Johanni: This fish has an electric blue and black striped pattern. They are aggressive to just about everything, including larger fish and other Johannis. This fish can be kept in a 40 gallon tank so long as there is enough swimming space at the bottom of the tank.

Kribensis: If you are looking for an excellent beginner fish then look no further. This Dwarf Cichlid is one of the very best for those who are new to the hobby. They come in beautiful green and yellow colors with a spot of blush pink on the underside. They are easy to care for, extremely community friendly, and a great choice for beginner keepers.

Lionhead: This Cichlid is a hump-head species that is similar to the Frontosa. Lionheads come in dull grey, slate, or pale blue colors. The males have a large fleshy hump over their heads.

Livingstoni: This large fish can grow up to 10 inches long and needs at least a 150 gallon tank. They are known for their unique cow print pattern that can be in black, white, blue, brown, or grey. Because of their aggression they can only be kept with fish that are too large to be eaten.

Peacock: The Aulonocara genus is one of the most popular of all. Lake Malawi is home to over 20 different species of these brightly colored fish. Each species boasts a different color or pattern, and no two are exactly alike. Popular varieties include the pink Strawberry, blue and yellow Sunshine, red and white Dragonblood, and striped Blue Tiger.

Yellow Lab: This species is the most popular Labidochromis species. They are bright yellow with black fins. Because they are quite peaceful, they are one of the most popular species for beginners.

Yellow Tail Acei: This fish is bright blue and has a yellow tail. When placed under an aquarium light, their scales sparkle in iridescent blue hues. Aceis are rock dwelling Mbunas that make their homes in caves at the bottom of the lake bed. They will pick out a specific cave and then fiercely defend it from other fish.

What is an African Cichlid?

Strawberry Peacock

African Cichlids are native to Africa’s 3 major lake systems: Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria. Some species can also be found in Madagascar and parts of the Middle East.

In total there are over 1000 African Cichlid species.

The smallest species only reach 2 inches in length, whereas the largest can reach up to 3 feet.

These fish are best known for their vibrant colors and for being boisterous bullies. Although this is true for some species, it is not true for all. There are certain Cichlids that will get along with other fish just fine, including the Fairy Cichlid and the Electric Blue Hap.

You should expect most African Cichlids to live between 6 and 10 years.

The average price is $8-$10 but many species sell for much more depending on their rarity and color.

Key Facts:

  • Experience Required: Freshwater fishkeeping.
  • Color Forms: Species dependent.
  • Size: 2-36 inches.
  • Tank Size: Minimum 20+ gallon.
  • Tank Temperature: 75-82°F.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Wide variety of species available
  • Easy to find
  • Adapted to many different types of habitats
  • Stunning and vibrant colors

Cons:

  • Aggressive and territorial
  • Should not be mixed with South American types
  • Limited compatibility
  • Can be difficult to keep

Cichlid Tank Setup and Size

Yellow Cichlid

The lake and river systems where these fish are found contain many different kinds of habitats, from rocky caves to sandy substrate to underwater forests.

However, there are a few conditions that are the same for all African Cichlids.

All Cichlids must have a thick, soft substrate that is safe to dig and burrow in.

The water temperature can range anywhere from 75-82°F, with an alkaline pH (6.5-8.5), and a low to moderate flow.

Salinity tolerance is based on which species you have; some prefer brackish water and others prefer freshwater.

The exact aquarium you need will depend on which African Cichlid you keep.

Dwarf and Fairy Cichlids can be kept in a 20 gallon tank. Medium sized Cichlids will need a tank of 50 to 75 gallons. Large species will need 100 gallons or more.

These fish tend to produce a lot of waste, so you will need a powerful external or canister filter. Adjust the flow to create a low to moderate current. 3 to 4 watts per gallon is a suitable light intensity for most species. Since they live in caves they will not spend too much time in the light.

How you decorate the tank depends on the type of Cichlid you have.

The decorations should match what they would find in their natural habitat.

Most African Cichlids thrive in areas full of rocks, logs, and other objects that they can use as a cave. At the same time, there must be enough wide open water to keep the peace between the different species. The middle level should be wide open for uninterrupted swimming, while the bottom should include rocks, caves, and other hideouts.

With most species it is best to avoid plants altogether as they are notorious for digging up and destroying aquarium plants.

Care

Kribensis

The exact care needs of your Cichlid will depend on which type you have.

Many types are suitable species for beginners but there are others that should only be handled by more experienced keepers.

All African Cichlids need a clean tank and a weekly 25% water change.

You should not mix Cichlids from different parts of the world together as this can introduce diseases that the African species have no resistance to.

Watch out for Cotton Wool Disease.

This is a common fungal infection that causes a fuzzy white growth over the head and fins. It is usually caused by an accumulation of rot in the tank. Fortunately, it is very treatable with antifungal medication or by placing the fish in a salt bath.

Dropsy is another common illness.

This causes much bigger problems and is not a disease itself, but a symptom of a bacterial infection. Cichlids with dropsy will have a visibly distended abdomen, swollen with water. This will affect their balance, coordination, and mobility. Dropsy can be difficult to treat, because the root cause must be identified. The swelling itself can be relieved by slightly increasing the salinity in the tank.

Feeding and Diet

African Cichlids tend to eat anything they can find.

Most of them are carnivores that feed on small fish, crustaceans, snails, and insects. Some are herbivores that feast on algae, leaves, seeds, and other plant material.

Cichlid flakes provide the essential nutrients that most species need. Bottom dwelling species like Mbunas will need sinking pellets that sink quickly to the bottom of the tank.

You can supplement a flake-based diet with either greens or live prey.

Herbivorous species can be given boiled cucumbers, peas, and zucchini as a treat. They will even accept some fruits, such as bananas and berries.

If you have a carnivorous or omnivorous species, you should include live prey. Bloodworms, feeder shrimp, flies, crickets, and insect larvae are all good options.

Most species will need 3 to 4 meals a day.

Behavior and Temperament

Most African Cichlids are quite aggressive and territorial.

They do not enjoy the company of other fish.

Cichlids are also quite hyperactive and will dig up plants and overturn decorations that are not weighed down.

Although they do not get along with other species, most will get along with their own kind. Kribensis and Fairy Cichlids will even travel in schools.

African Cichlids can be found at all levels of the tank and will remain close to their chosen territory.

Many species will engage in amusing behaviors when other Cichlids are in the tank. They may flash and twitch their fins, swim in circles, or chase each other around the tank. They will often lock lips when they are fighting.

African Cichlid Tank Mates

Lots of African Cichlids are aggressive so it can be difficult to find good tank mates.

Compatibility depends on which species you have and which species you intend to keep them with.

For example Mbunas and Jewelfish are notoriously difficult to keep with other fish. The Kribensis and the Yellow Lab are much better in community tanks.

Large Pleco Catfish such as the Sailfin are surprisingly Cichlid friendly.

Catfish from the Synodontis genus are among the most popular tank mates for these fish. These include the Clown Squeaker, Featherfin Squeaker, and Upside Down Catfish.

Freshwater sharks are also quite popular to keep with these fish. Red Tail and Rainbow Sharks have strong enough personalities to handle a little bit of boisterous behavior.

Also consider keeping an African Cichlid with Siamese Algae Eaters and Siamese Flying Foxes.

You can keep most African Cichlids together with their own kind, so long as there are more females than males in a group. The general rule to follow is 3 females for every male. When keeping different types together you must carefully research the temperament and compatibility of each fish. For example Mbunas can only live with other Mbunas.

These fish are notorious invertebrate eaters, so it is best not to include any shrimp or snails in this tank.

You should also not keep South American and African species together as they can spread diseases and parasites to each other.

Do not keep Cichlids with anything that is small enough to be eaten. This means that most Tetras, Rasboras, Kuhli Loaches and other nano fish are out.

You should also avoid including any predatory fish, such as large eels and Iridescent Sharks.

Breeding

Nearly every type of African Cichlid can be bred in a home aquarium.

Their breeding behaviors can be fascinating to watch in action.

You will need to isolate a male and female that you notice interacting with each other. The breeding tank should have a thick sand substrate and a cave that can be used as a nesting ground. This can be a cluster of rocks, a hollow log, or a PVC pipe.

The pair should be fed bloodworms, microworms, and other high protein foods to get them into breeding condition. When the male’s colors turn brighter you know he is ready to breed.

He will entice the female to the nesting ground by chasing after her, flashing his fins, or engaging in a funny dance to catch her attention.

Depending on the species the female will either lay her eggs in the cave, or else the male will catch them in his mouth. A female will lay anywhere from 10 to 30 eggs at a time. The male will defend them by swimming in circles around the nest or by carrying them in his mouth until they hatch.

Eggs can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to hatch.

Once they hatch the male will care for the fry by feeding them a mucus-based food.

After two weeks the fry will need to find their own food. They can be given infusoria and powdered fry food for the first month of their life, before moving them onto brine shrimp and microworms.

In 6 to 9 months your new Cichlids will be mature enough to join the main tank.

History and First Sighting

The Cichlidae family is home to some of the most brilliantly colored freshwater fish. There are over 1000 species in Africa, 300 in South America, and 3 in Asia. The first population of African Cichlids was discovered in Lake Tanganyika in 1858, by Richard Burton and John Speke. The Lake Malawi population was found by David Livingstone one year later.

In 1935 the Melanochromis genus of Mbunas was discovered in Lake Malawi.

This genus would become the first to enter the fishkeeping hobby in 1965. Lake Malawi species dominated the hobby for the next 6 years, until the Tanganyika and Victoria species became available in the mid 1970s.

African Cichlids continued to gain popularity through the 1980s and 1990s as more and more species were discovered. Unfortunately this led to declining wild populations for some species. Many species that had been in decline were restored though with the captive breeding programs in the 1990s and 2000s.

Today African Cichlids are some of the most popular Cichlid species around.

Facts

African Cichlid
Other Common Names: N.A.
Scientific Name: Cichlidae spp
Family Name: Cichlidae
Distribution: Lake Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victori
Size: 2-36 inches
Color: Various
Care Level: Easy to Expert
Temperament: Semi-aggressive to Aggressive
Lifespan: 6-10 years
Minimum Tank Size: 20 gallons
Tank Mate Compatibility: Species dependent

Summary

African Cichlids are very well known and beloved by many keepers.

They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Most are radiant, eye-catching, and sure to draw attention to even the most basic aquarium.

There are plenty of species for beginners just as there are plenty of species for experts only.

Raising them will give you an up close and personal view into three of Africa’s most important freshwater ecosystems.

With so many different types available and so many things to love about them, it is easy to see why African Cichlids have captured the hearts of hobbyists everywhere.

Which type of African Cichlid would you recommend for beginners? Let us know in the comments section below…

David Thomas Author Bio Picture
David Thomas leads the team at Everything Fishkeeping as the Editor-in-Chief. David has been keeping fish since he was a child. In his first tank he kept goldfish and since then he has kept over 30 different species. Now he has 4 separate tanks and his favorite is a 100 gallon freshwater tank with a school of Rasboras, Tetras and Loaches.