Central America is the home of a wide variety of cichlid species, many of which have found their way into the aquarium hobby. These fish come from a wide variety of environs, from volcanic lakes to fast flowing rivers and streams; some of these cichlids have even adapted to brackish environments.

central american cichlid map
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In general, limestone predominates, so most Central American cichlids prefer hard, alkaline water, although many species are more adaptable than most.

It’s almost always better to provide an environment with stable pH and hardness for your fish than to frequently manipulate it to try and achieve an “ideal” level.

Introducing Central American Cichlids

All Central American cichlids are intelligent and many have striking patterns. They range from moderately to very aggressive depending on species, and are best kept with other cichlids.

Central American cichlids generally form mated pairs, spawn in caves or on rocks, and both parents help protect their young.

It will be tempting to combine Central American cichlids with their distant African cousins, but harsh experience has shown this to be a very bad idea that almost always ends in disaster.

Quite simply, these two groups of fish diverged too long ago in their evolution and they do not recognize each other’s body language of aggression, submission, and so on.

Combining these two groups of cichlid will result in something much like a gang war between the mafia and yakuza. Eventually the smaller or less aggressive species will become victims. So, keep your Central American cichlids and African Cichlids in separate aquariums.

Popular Central American Cichlid Species

Convict Cichlid

convict cichlid

Amatitlania nigrofasciata, the Convict Cichlid, received its common name from the dark stripes that resemble old-school prison uniforms. This species remains relatively small for Central American cichlids, reaching about 5” for males and 4” for females.

Best described as “pugnacious”, these little hooligans will cause trouble if kept with less aggressive species, but can hold their own against much larger tank mates.

Convicts are typical cave-breeders. They prefer a tank with plenty of cover, whether from rocks, floating plants, driftwood, or a combination of the above, and are omnivorous.

Firemouth Cichlid

firemouth cichlid

The Firemouth cichlid (Thorichthys meeki) is native to rivers through the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Belize, and northern Guatemala. As a river dweller (typically in shallow, slow moving water), they are more forgiving to water conditions than many fish, being adaptable to water with a pH from 6.5-8.0 and a temperature from 75-86°F.

Characterized by the orange-red coloration under their jaws, these fish grow to about 6” and are considered moderately aggressive. They form monogamous pairs and spawn on flat surfaces like rocks or submerged wood, and are prolific breeders with a single spawn in the range of 100-500 eggs.

While these can be kept with non-cichlid tank mates, it’s recommended that they be at least as big as or bigger than the Firemouths and of hardy varieties; smaller tank mates will be harassed or killed, especially around mating time.

These cichlids are omnivores, and will do best when fed a variety of different foods.

Rainbow Cichlid

rainbow central american cichlid

These little guys are Rainbow Cichlids (Archocentrus multispinosa), native to Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. Inhabitants of lakes and swamps with muddy bottoms, they eat mostly algae.

The Rainbow cichlid got its name from its ability to change colors quite dramatically based on its mood, normally adopting bright blue rows of scales on its back half when mating.

Growing to just 3” in an aquarium setting, the Rainbow cichlid is the smallest of the Central American cichlids commonly found in the hobby and the most peaceful. They can be kept readily in peaceful community tanks with smaller fish and unlike most of their cousins; they are even plant-friendly.

In spite of their peaceful nature, they can also hold their own in a tank with some other Central American cichlids like convicts and firemouths. If this is attempted, care should be taken to observe how they fare and you should be prepared to remove them to a safer environment if necessary.

Rainbow cichlids require a tank of at least 30 gallons for a mated pair, preferably larger. They lay a huge number of eggs (500-1500) on a vertical surface when spawning, and will defend their brood.

Salvini Cichlid

salvini central american cichlid

An inhabitant of Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, the Salvini cichlid (Nandopsis Salvini) is dull yellow to gray as a juvenile, but develops gorgeous colors as an adult – intense black and gold with bright red and some blue highlights.

While not nearly as large as many Central American cichlids, topping out somewhere around 6” (although 8” specimens have been reported), the Salvini has huge attitude. This fish is very aggressive to others, and is a predator who’s quite adept at making smaller fish disappear.

Their aggression requires a lot of space; 50 gallon tanks are about the minimum, but they’ll do better in 100 gallons or more. They need lots of free swimming space and plenty of cover. Salvinis are not diggers and plants are not only safe around them but will actually make them display their best coloration.

Texas Cichlid

texas cichlid

The only species of cichlid native to the United States, the Texas Cichlid (aka Rio Grande cichlid, Hericthys cyanoguttatus) is found in the lower Rio Grande drainage in Texas and Northern Mexico. These turquoise speckled beauties can grow to 13”, and form mated pairs for breeding.

While they look charming, make no mistake; Texas cichlids are among the most aggressive of all American cichlids, reinforcing the meme of “Don’t mess with Texas”.

Even much larger cichlid species are often outmatched by these fish although some folks have had success keeping them with other pugnacious species like the Red Devil or Jack Dempsey.

Obviously, these fish need a large tank with cover and hiding spots; a 100 gallon or larger tank is recommended for a breeding pair.

Texas cichlids are diggers, will destroy plants possibly including plastic ones, and have been known to attack and damage aquarium equipment.

Jack Dempsey Cichlid

jack dempsey cichlid

Any fish named after a 1920’s boxing heavyweight champion should not be treated lightly. The Jack Dempsey cichlid (Rocio octofasciatum) was so named because of its aggressive nature, though should be fine if kept in a large enough tank with appropriate tank mates.

Jack Dempsey cichlids grow to a full 10 inches, and are striking show fish. In order to display their full coloration, they need plenty of cover in the form of rocks or wood.They are diggers who prefer a sandy substrate.

Males and females are difficult to tell apart; females are generally smaller and slightly less colored. Like most Central American cichlids, they form mated pairs to spawn and raise their young. Generally a breeding pair should be kept in their own dedicated tank.

Red Devil Cichlid

Red Devil Cichlid

Direct from the depths of Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, the Red Devil (Amphilophus labiatus) is one of the largest and most aggressive cichlid species commonly found in aquaria. They grow to 15” long, and very few if any other species can be kept with them long term.

Red Devils have serious teeth and are adept predators. Additionally, they are aspiring decorators who will eat or shred plants and rearrange all but the sturdiest of rocks in their tank.

One might wonder why anyone would keep a fish like this. Aside from their beauty, these fish are very “owner conscious”, and have been likened to puppy dogs. You will be amazed by their personality and they’ve been known to follow their owners movements, beg for food, and otherwise show off.

Central American Cichlid Summary

Central American cichlids are beautiful, intelligent fish who are quite easy to breed and who make good and protective parents. While some are small and relatively peaceful, others are large and aggressive species who are quite incompatible with most other fish, including other cichlids.

Before putting these in your tank, thorough research into the individual needs of the species and careful planning of tank mates and décor is mandatory. With proper care, they can make excellent show fish who are sure to keep their owners’ attention.