Introducing African Cichlids

If you’ve ever set foot in a specialty fish store, you’ve probably been drawn to the tanks full of African cichlids. These vividly colored fish are often confused for saltwater species by the uninitiated and are frequently relegated to the back of the freshwater section.

African cichlids are beautiful and intelligent fish and display fascinating behavior for aquarium owners, but before you add a bunch to your peaceful community tank there are some things you need to know.

Definitions and Origins of the African Cichlid

Cichlids (Sick-lids) are fish of the family Cichlidae, and represent a very large and diverse group of freshwater species largely found in Africa and South America. For those interested in taxonomy, they are characterized by fused lower pharyngeal bones that form a single toothlike structure.

African cichlids generally originate in one of the three rift lakes of Eastern Africa; Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, or Lake Victoria. Each of these regions has their own distinct species that are well suited to aquarium life. Most common are the Mbuna (literally “rock fish” in the local language) of Lake Malawi, and the broad range of species available from this single region is a study in the diversification and specialization of evolution.

Many cichlids that you’ll find at the fish store are identified both by common names (Red Zebra, Red Empress, Electric Yellow Lab) and by their scientific names (Pseudotropheus estherae, Protomelas taeniolatus, Labidochromis caeruleus respectively); rarer cichlids are generally identified only by their Latin names.

The Environment

African cichlids are often described by hobbyists as living in an environment of “liquid rock”; they prefer hard water that is mineral rich and alkaline (pH 7.5-8.4), and will do best in a setup that includes plenty of stacked rocks and caves to explore.

Many municipal water systems will be perfect for them (once dechlorinated). If you are living in an area with softer or more acidic water, crushed coral can be used as an aquarium substrate to gently increase the alkalinity of the water.

Harsh experience has taught us that modifying tanks on a weekly basis to increase or decrease pH can be very tricky and easily lead to unfortunate incidents that can directly injure fish or make them more susceptible to disease.

In most cases, fish will thrive more in a stable environment that isn’t quite perfect than in one that is being constantly adjusted.

If your tap water does not match the water in the aquarium very closely, we also strongly recommend smaller but more frequent water changes to eliminate the buildup of nitrates in an established tank. If they’re essentially identical, then larger water changes (we’ve done 75% changes fairly regularly) will be fine.

Temperatures in the tank should be kept around 80 F, although somewhat cooler (but not cold) water can often induce spawning behavior in mature adults.

Don’t bother adding plants to your tank if you’re keeping African cichlids – most of them are herbivorous and all but the hardiest plants will quickly be torn apart as salad. On the plus side, they are excellent at keeping algae in control as many species will graze on algae growing on the rocks.

Ideal foods for these fish will include a variety that is plant protein heavy like a quality Spirulina flake, though they will also eat most other food options as treats.

Bigger is always better, especially when talking tank size and African cichlids. A larger tank will help defuse aggression and provides more rock cover to help break up sight lines if a fish is being harassed.

The minimum size tank we recommend for a mildly aggressive pair-bonded species like N. Brichardi or a small group of L. Caeruleus would be in the 20-30 gallon range. More aggressive cichlids, larger species, or mixed groups require more space; some like Frontosa should really not be kept in anything less than 100 gallons.

Good lighting is important in keeping your African cichlids happy and healthy. The lighting should keep the tank as close to their natural habitat as possible – ensuring your fish grow to their full vibrant potential. Check out our best aquarium lighting guide to see what you need to look out for and what to avoid.

How Aggressive are African Cichlids?

All African cichlids are classified as “aggressive”, meaning they are likely to chase, catch, and kill other fish, or are very territorial and look at interlopers as enemies. This means they do not mix well with peaceful community fish.

There is still a great deal of variation within the species of Africans; some like the popular yellow labs or Brichardi are relatively mild while others like many of the Melanochromis species (Johanni, Auratus) are far more belligerent and thus likely to inflict mayhem at some point.

Moderately aggressive species include the Haplochromines from Lake Victoria, the Peacocks (Auloncara sp.) from Lake Malawi, other Labidochromis species and some Pseudotropheus species.

Even among the more “peaceful” species in this group there can be aggression issues if, for example, there are multiple males vying for domination with each other in a breeding setup.

Breeding

For the home aquarium hobbyist, African cichlids display fascinating breeding behaviors. Most show significant brood care; unlike many fish that spawn and immediately abandon their eggs or even turn and cannibalize them, Africans will guard their eggs or fry.

Two extreme cases leap to mind. N. Brichardi are cave brooders who form an extended family; older generations of fry will help the parents guard the smaller fry against external predation.

Perhaps even more fascinating is the fact that many Mbuna are mouth brooders. When the eggs are laid the female scoops them into her mouth, the male fertilizes them, and the mother then carries the eggs for ~2 weeks until well after the fry have hatched. This results in a smaller number of larger and hardier fry.

An ideal breeding group of many African cichlids is one dominant male to several females; this is made trickier since most species are impossible to sex as juveniles and some are even difficult to tell apart as mature adults. It should be noted that if you’re wanting to breed cichlids commercially, we highly recommend having a dedicated tank for each species (along with smaller nursery tanks to maximize fry survival); Africans are not particularly fussy and interbreeding to create “mutts” is common in this environment.

African Cichlid Tank Mates

There are few fish that are compatible with African cichlids; indeed, many species within the category won’t mix well long term. Normally the more belligerent Malawian species won’t mix well with those from the other lakes.

If you are going to mix lakes, do your homework up front to avoid tragedies later. Other than Africans, we have had success with larger, bony Plecostomus catfish, and somewhat surprisingly Clown Loaches have also thrived in our mixed African tanks.

Conclusion

While they aren’t for everyone, African cichlids are among the most beautiful and fascinating of all freshwater fish. They display distinct personalities, and between their territorial and breeding behavior are never boring.