Maybe you’re new to the world of cichlids, or maybe you’ve been keeping them already for a while and have noticed them displaying spawning behavior.
Regardless, at some point in your journey as an aquarium hobbyist, you’re probably going to at least think about breeding cichlids. You might even have dreams of doing it commercially, selling the offspring to fish stores in your city or maybe even shipping them elsewhere.
Plenty of hobbyists eventually become amateur breeders; most cichlids breed quite readily in the right conditions and are often fairly prolific with anywhere from a dozen fry (for some mouthbrooding African cichlids) to over a thousand (for a few of the larger egg laying Central American species).
If you’re doing this for the money with dreams of earning a living from your fishy friends, it’s probably time for a reality check. While there certainly are individuals who have reached this level, it requires a tremendous investment of time and money to reach the sort of scale necessary. Most hobbyist breeders are in it to observe the fascinating behaviors that cichlid parents display, and possibly to offset some of the costs of their hobby as a bonus.
Keep in mind that the easier and more prolific a breeding fish is, the more likely the market is to be (or become) saturated with its offspring, and the lower the value of the fry. In contrast, certain strains of discus, for example, may be able to command a respectable price at the fish store, but are very difficult to raise, breed, and care for.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll divide this primer into two parts. The first will cover typical polygamous mouthbrooding African cichlids, and the second will investigate pair bonded egg layers (which can be African, Central, or South American cichlids).
Polygamous Mouthbrooders – Breeding African Cichlids
Many African cichlids, particularly the mbuna from Lake Malawi, fall into this category.
Generally, these fish do best when kept in a grouping of one dominant male to 2-3 females, although it’s also possible for sub-dominant “sleeper” males who maintain female coloration to be quite successful breeders as well.
The easiest way to create a breeding group of any particular species is to purchase at least 5 or more juveniles and allow them to grow up together. In some species of African cichlids, the male and female both possess similar coloration (called monomorphic: Ps. Acei and L. Caeruleus for example), while others are dimorphic with the females remaining a dull silvery color while the males adopt spectacular coloration, particularly while spawning (eg. Auloncara sp.)
In either case, sexing juvenile African cichlids is normally not possible. As they grow larger, differences between males and females become more obvious. In the case of monomorphic species, this usually presents in the males being larger, possibly with slightly more pronounced colors, and with visible eggspots on their anal fin.
It’s a very good idea to remove “extra” males from the tank as they are likely to be harassed and potentially murdered by the dominant male of the species.
Spawning of mbuna can often be encouraged with a partial water change of slightly cooler water; this simulates the rainy season around Lake Malawi and can be a cue.
Spawning behavior for African mouthbrooders normally involves the male and female chasing each other in tight circles, most often near a rock or in an area of the substrate that the fish have prepared ahead of time (sometimes making craters by moving the substrate).
The female lays eggs and scoops them into her mouth. The male displays his anal fin to the female, and the eggspots help encourage her to mouth the area, at which point he fertilizes the eggs.
At this time you’ll be able to see a distinct bulge in the jaw of the female fish where she is holding the eggs, like in the picture of this Ps. Acei below:
The female will brood the eggs (and the fry after they’ve hatched) for 2-3 weeks, until the fry have grown to a point where they can better survive on their own. During this time she will not eat any food.
It’s important to note that new mothers with their first brood may either spit out or swallow the eggs, particularly if stressed. This is normal, and she will get better at it with practice.
While it is possible to raise fry in a community tank, predation by other species is natural, and the survival rate here will be quite low. To maximize survival of the fry, particularly for commercial reasons, you’ll want to invest in a small (10-20 Gallon) nursery tank.
The nursery tank is a safe haven for mom and babies alike. It should have a simple sponge filter, and really doesn’t need any decoration. Once the female has laid her eggs and taken them up into her mouth, after a week or so she can be gently caught and transferred into the nursery tank. This gives the fry a much higher chance of survival. Once the fry are free swimming they can be fed with small amounts of finely crushed flake foods and/or daphnia.
It’s a good idea to keep the mom in the nursery tank for an extra week or two after the fry are free swimming (and not returning to her pouch regularly) as this will give her a chance to rest and recover some of her energy before being returned to the community tank for another round.
When the fry have reached 3/4-1” long, they can be sold to your local fish store.
Pair-Bonded Egg Layers
Whether the cichlids are Tanganyikan shell dwellers or Central American Firemouths, the cichlids that aren’t mouthbrooders are almost exclusively pair-bonded egg layers. In these species, both the mother and father will care for the eggs and the fry, often dealing with potential predators violently.
The most challenging part of breeding these fish is getting a successful pair. Cichlids are quite intelligent fish, and are also fairly picky; simply putting a male and a female together is no guarantee of a successful bond forming.
Again, the best route to forming a successful pair is to buy a small group of juveniles (6 seems to be ideal) and allow them to grow up together. It will be obvious when a pair forms, and the paired fish are likely to team up to get rid of rivals. Removing the others from the tank is normally necessary at this point, although if you have a big enough tank you can support multiple pairs of some species.
Once a pair has formed, depending on the species of cichlid they are likely to spend some time preparing the breeding cave or surface. This may involve cleaning it, rearranging the substrate to suit, digging, and other activities.
Once the eggs have been laid, normally the female guards the eggs directly (often using her tail to keep a constant gentle current floating over them), while the male becomes more aggressive to potential predators. Sometimes they share the guard duties more equally.
With egg layers, the odds of fry surviving to adulthood in a community tank are even lower than with mouthbrooders, though some will succeed nonetheless. Here, the key to successfully raising the fry is to have a dedicated breeding tank for the matched pair.
Depending on the species and particularly with some of the larger and more aggressive Central American cichlids, it may be necessary to temporarily separate the male and female fish during the breeding process to prevent harassment. In this case, the male could be removed to another tank, or a water-permeable barrier can be placed in the tank to physically separate them.
How to breed cichlids successfully
Most cichlids breed readily in captivity, and while breeding they display fascinating behaviors. Unlike most fish, cichlids are doting parents who protect their eggs and fry from becoming food for others. Breeding cichlids is a very rewarding, if sometimes quite costly, endeavor.
It should be noted here that in captivity, most cichlids are not particularly picky, and cross-breeding does occur readily both with the mouthbrooders and the egg-layers. Obviously, if you are planning to sell the offspring back to the fish stores, then every precaution should be taken to prevent crossbreeding and mutts.