Convict Cichlid Guide: Is This Convict Fish For You?

The Black Convict Cichlid is a beautiful zebra striped South American Cichlid.

They are one of the most commonly kept Cichlids and are often the species of choice for first time Cichlid keepers.

Whilst they are easy to care for their territorial nature and aggression must be taken into account. You cannot keep this fish in just any aquarium.

If you would like an entertaining and attractive addition to a tropical freshwater tank this fish may be just what you need.

Can your aquarium handle a Convict Cichlid?

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this beautiful fish…

Black Convict Cichlid

Convict Cichlid Species Overview

The Convict Cichlid, or Zebra Cichlid, is one of the many South American Cichlids that you can keep in an aquarium.

Their scientific name is Amatitlania nigrofasciata, however, throughout their history they have also been known as Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum, Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, and several other scientific names.

They are a member of the family Cichlidae, which contains all of the other South American and African Cichlids.

Cichlids are known for their aggressive nature and this one is no exception. Special care is needed to keep a tank of Convict Cichlids as peaceful as possible. They are generally not very good for community tanks and will do best in a medium to large sized species only tank.

This fish is most famous for their striped appearance which gives them a convict look.

You can purchase this fish for between $6 to $14 and some suppliers will charge less for a set of 3 or more.

Overall they are easy to care for and make a wonderful introduction to the Cichlidae family.

Key Facts:

  • Experience Required: Experience with cichlid tanks and other aggressive fish is ideal.
  • Nicknames: Zebra Cichlid.
  • Color Forms: Black, blue, gold, pink, white and marbled.
  • Size: 3-4 inches.
  • Tank Size: minimum 30 gallons.
  • Tank Temperature: 79°F-82°F.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Very easy to breed.
  • Several beautiful color forms available.
  • A hardy and adaptable fish.
  • One of the easiest Cichlids to care for.
  • Has a long lifespan.
Cons

  • Very aggressive and territorial.
  • Difficult to keep in community tanks.
  • Can bite you.
  • May attack even its own kind.

Appearance

Convict Cichlid

The Convict Cichlid has the typical body form of a ray finned fish, with a sloping head and wide abdomen.

Their narrow tail ends in a wide, fan shaped caudal fin.

As you would guess from their name their entire body is silver and covered with black bands which can be either solid or split. However sometimes they can be bandless or have patches or spots instead of stripes. You will notice that certain areas of the fish can be brighter or darker in color than other areas (particularly on the abdomen).

You can also find these fish in pink, blue, or gold due to selective breeding. These color forms are engineered in the aquarium and cannot be found in the wild.

In total they have 5 fins: a fused dorsal fin with up to 19 spines, a fanned caudal fin, a pectoral fin, a pelvic fin and a long fused anal fin.

How Big Do Convict Cichlids Get?

You can expect them to normally grow between 3 and 4 inches long but larger males may grow up to 6 inches. This is one of the few fish species where the males are larger than the females.

Females can be identified by their smaller size and the single dark spot on their dorsal fins. Their colors are brighter than the males.

Males on the other hand have a sharper and pointier looking dorsal fin.

Color Varieties

Pink Convict Cichlid

You can find Convict Cichlids in several different color varieties but only a few occur naturally.

Most are the product of selective breeding and genetic engineering.

  • Black: This is what most people think of when they think of a Black Convict Cichlid. Black bands over silver scales bring to mind a prisoner’s uniform.
  • Unbanded: Silver body with no bands or very light, faded bands. This is also known as an amelanistic color form and it can occur naturally.
  • Pink: A leucistic or colorless Convict has a pinkish white body with no dark bands or spots. This can also occur naturally.
  • Marbled: Silver body with large black patches or spots instead of bands. Also known as a Calico Convict.
  • Gold: Golden yellow scales with black or brown bands and an orange abdomen. This is a manmade color form that does not occur in the wild.
  • Blue: Cerulean colored scales with black bands or spots. This is also an aquarium-only color form.

Fun Facts About Convict Cichlids

  1. Convict Cichlids start to develop their colors at 3 days old, but begin with horizontal bands rather than vertical bands. The characteristic vertical stripes do not appear until the fish is 2 months old and are fully visible by the time they reach 3 months old.
  2. Like other Cichlids they often look as though they are kissing each other. However lip-locking is how Cichlids fight.
  3. Chromatophores containing melanin are responsible for this fish’s iconic zebra stripe pattern.
  4. These fish enjoy rocky environments near the bottoms of streams and creeks. It is possible that they developed their scale patterns in order to blend in with the rocks and the foliage around them.
  5. This species has become invasive in the United States due to its release from home aquariums. It has established territories in Louisiana, California and Hawaii.
  6. In the wild this fish’s colors determine its ability to maintain the upper hand in a fight. When a banded and an unbanded fish get into a conflict the banded fish is likely to win (even if it is a smaller size).
  7. They have had lots of different scientific names including: Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum, Heros nigrofasciatus, Cryptoheros nigrofasciatus, and Archocentrus nigrofasciatus.

Habitat and Tank Conditions

Convict Cichlids

Convict Fish are hardy enough to establish themselves in many different kinds of habitats.

They can be found in freshwater streams, creeks, pools and ponds in Central and South America.

However they thrive in fast moving streams with rocky bottoms and warm water.

To blend in with the rocky substrate they tend to remain close to the bottom. This is also where they build their shelters and establish their territories.

Tank Set Up

These fish will need at least a 30 gallon tank for a single Convict Cichlid.

Your first task is to find a good aquarium heater that can maintain temperatures in the low 80s. They will thrive in water temperatures between 79°F and 82°F. You can use an under gravel filter to simulate the moderate flow conditions they experience in the wild. A canister filter works well too.

Water hardness should be kept between 5 and 20 dGH and the pH can range from 6.5 to 8.0.

As for lighting these fish need moderate light penetration (at the most). So a fluorescent hood light is the best kind of lighting system for this habitat.

Next up you need to line the bottom of the tank with fine gravel that is layered with larger pebbles and cobbles.

You should use larger rocks and rock formations as shelter for your Convict Cichlids.

To add some extra shelter you can decorate your tank with arches, towers and other structures. These fish particularly love flower pots filled with rocks and pebbles.

Underwater plants provide your fish with the shade that they need to feel secure.

Unfortunately they are very good at digging them up so your plants must have strong roots and must be able to handle a little bit of rough handling. The best kinds of plants are those that you can anchor directly to the rocks.

Sword plants are among the best for Cichlid tanks. These include Amazon swords, pygmy chain swords and micro swords.

Java ferns and water ferns also make for good décor as they can be anchored to the substrate to allow their roots to take hold.

You can also use floating pennyworts and bladderworts on the surface of your tank to create an authentic South American river biotope.

Tank Parameter Requirement
Minimum Tank Size 30 Gallons
Tank Type Freshwater Planted
Temperature 79-82°F
pH 6.5-8.0
Hardness 5 to 20 dGH
Flow Medium
Substrate Rocks and pebbles

What Size Aquarium Do They Need?

Convicts are very territorial so a small tank will bring big trouble.

Your aquarium must be large enough to accommodate the individual territories your Convicts will want to establish.

30 gallons is the smallest acceptable tank size for a single Convict. You must add 10 gallons for each new Convict fish that you include.

Convict Cichlid Tank Mates

Close Up Convict Cichlid

Convict Cichlids do not make the best community fish.

They should only keep it in a community if you are particularly experienced with Cichlids.

Ideally this fish should be kept in a species only tank. However if you really want to include this fish in a community then you must include others that can handle being pushed around.

In their natural habitat they share space with other well-known Cichlid species like the Jack Dempsey, Firemouth and Firehead. These wild roommates also make the best tank mates as they can hold their own against a Convict quite nicely.

You can also include other headstrong Cichlids such as Oscars, Jewels and Green Terrors. These fish will be able to push back if your Convicts get a little too rough.

Though it is a rather unusual choice, the Giant Danio has had some success in communities with this fish too.

Avoid including peaceful species of Cichlids like the Discus and the Dwarf Cichlid – they may not be able to handle a Convict’s roughhousing. All shrimp, snails, and other non-fish are at risk of being eaten by these omnivores. Nano fish like Tetras or Cories should be avoided for the same reason.

You should also avoid adding Bettas and other fighting fish – this is asking for trouble!

As a side note African Cichlids should never be kept with South American Cichlids. There are certain parasites that will give a South American species a bad time.

Keeping Convict Cichlids Together

If you are new to this species then you should keep them in a single species tank until you are more familiar with their behaviors.

Once you feel comfortable you can keep a few of these fish together in a tank over 50 gallons.

However you should be warned that they will behave aggressively even to their own kind. Your best case scenario is that your Convicts ignore each other. However if your tank is too small they will attack each other instead.

Make sure to increase your tank size by 10 gallons for every new Cichlid that you add.

Convict Cichlid Care Guide

Convict Fish

Despite this fish’s aggression they are actually one of the easiest Cichlids to care for.

They are a good introduction to the Cichlidae family.

Fortunately they have a very high tolerance for shifts in water quality so you do not have to worry too much if your water parameters are temporarily incorrect.

Your biggest issue keeping this fish is going to be aggression towards other fish. Watch for signs of injury if your fish have been in a fight. An injured fish will make more of an effort to keep out of sight. Visible battle scars include scratches, tears, and mars on the scales or fins. Usually these will heal on their own over time however a particularly nasty injury will need medical attention.

The best way to reduce aggression is to get a large tank and give each fish lots of space.

Apart from fighting you will need to keep the tank clean as dirty tanks can lead to parasitic infections like spiroxys and Ich. Dirty tanks are also a major cause of bacterial infections that cause fin rot.

Clean your tank and change the water every 2 weeks. Keep your plants well trimmed and clear away any dead or decaying material that they leave behind.

Diet

In the wild these fish are omnivores.

They will eat absolutely anything that they can fit in their mouths. Convicts snack on smaller fish, crustaceans, insects and algae.

In the aquarium Convict Cichlid will eat anything that you give them.

You should give your Convict fish a balanced and nutritious diet.

Store bought fish foods are only a part of this – they will also need to hunt for live prey.

Flake and pellet foods should have a high veggie content and a reasonable balance of protein and carbs. You should only use flakes and pellets that are specifically designed for Cichlids. Live prey (such as bloodworms and brine shrimp) help these fish tap into their wild hunting instincts. So you can use live aquatic insects and larvae as a major part of their diet.

Just make sure that any live prey comes from a sanitary source.

You can also offer your fish some garden veggies from time to time. Blanched cucumbers, broccoli and lettuce make great healthy treats.

They should have 3 small meals every day.

This helps to prevent overfeeding and food aggression.

What Food Can They Eat?

Here is a list of some of the best food you can give a Convict Cichlid:

  • Cichlid flakes and pellets
  • Bloodworms (live and frozen)
  • Daphnia
  • Insects
  • Brine shrimp
  • Algae
  • Plants
  • Lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Ghost shrimp
  • Grass shrimp
  • Feeder minnows
  • Larvae

Convict Cichlid Size

Behavior

These fish are fiercely territorial and will attack any other fish that enters their territory.

If your Cichlids are kissing, they are actually fighting.

They are not very friendly and will only interact positively with one another when mating.

When the Convict Cichlid is not fighting they will keep to themselves.

You can watch them swim in and out of the rocks, logs and plants in your tank. Once they have chosen a home, they are very good at clearing up any debris or detritus around it.

If you watch them closely you will notice that they are fairly intelligent. They are able to memorize their feeding schedule and can learn to recognize you as the one who feeds and cares for them. They will come right up to you when it is time to eat.

Sometimes they will behave timidly, this is generally a sign that they are sick or injured.

When healthy they will show themselves readily but will keep close by their territories at the bottom levels of the tank.

Breeding Convict Cichlids

Convicts are among the easiest Cichlid species to breed.

Unlike most fish, both Convict parents will also watch over the eggs and care for the fry.

First of all, mated pairs must be separated from the rest of the tank.

This breeding tank should be at least 50 gallons and have lots of large rocks and flowerpots (these make safe spawning zones).

To get your fish into spawning condition you should heat the breeding tank up to 84°F and perform a partial water change every week.

The females will show their brightest colors when ready to spawn. Females that are ready to lay their eggs can be seen digging at the potential spawning site. If you see this happening in your main tank you should immediately isolate the female and her mate.

They will lay up to 300 eggs but only about 30 to 50 of the larvae will survive. The eggs will hatch in about 4 days and the larval stage will last for an additional 7 days. Once the larvae lose their yolk sacs you can feed them larval brine shrimp and powdered pellets.

Mated pairs will stay with the young well into the fry stage. The mother will assist with feeding and rearing the young, while the male defends the territory.

When the mother stops caring for the young they can be moved into the main tank.

Species History

Convict Cichlid Care Guide

The Convict Cichlid was first discovered and described by Albert Günther in 1867.

Back then this fish was known as both Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum and Archocentrus nigrofasciatus.

However since then it went through several other names before its current taxonomy was decided.

The Cichlidae family was extensively studied in its native habitat even before it became popular in the aquarium hobby.

They first entered the aquarium hobby in the 1930s and quickly became known for being aggressive towards other fish.

Convict’s popularity in aquariums has led to its introduction to areas outside of its native range. Because it is so hardy it is able to adapt to areas outside of its range easily. Invasive populations have been established in the United States, Iran and Western Australia.

The species is considered a pest in these areas for its competition with the native wildlife.

Even today the Convict Cichlid remains one of the most popular Cichlids to keep in aquariums.

Species Summary Table

Convict Cichlid
Other Common Names: Zebra Cichlid
Scientific Name: Amatitlania nigrofasciata
Family Name: Cichlidae
Distribution: Central and South America
Size: 3-4 inches
Color: Black, silver, white, pink, gold and blue
Care Level: Moderate
Temperament: Aggressive
Lifespan: 8-10 years
Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
Tank Mate Compatibility: Other Cichlids, Pictus, Plecos and Giant Danios

Are Convict Cichlids Right For You? (Summary)

Convict Cichlids are among the most interesting fish to keep, but they are not for everyone.

They are best for aquarists who already have some experience keeping aggressive fish.

Also remember that this species requires a lot of money and effort to maintain a suitable environment. They are not suitable for those on a tight budget.

If you are dedicated to the species then they will make a fine addition to your underwater world.

Their environment makes a very attractive biotope and their beautiful black and silver scale patterns will fit right in.

Have you had any success keeping Convict Cichlids in your aquarium? Let us know in the comments section below…

About David Thomas

David Thomas 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.

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