Cichlids are remarkably widespread. They are most represented in Africa, followed by Central and South America, but particular species have also been found native to Madagascar, a handful of countries in the Middle East, India, Cuba and Hispaniola. Cichlids tend to be confined to tropical and neo-tropical areas, with a few exceptions.
There are no known cichlid species native to Europe, Australia, Antarctica (duh!), or North America above the Rio Grande drainage.
However, thanks to irresponsible aquarium owners, feral cichlid populations have been identified in Florida, Mexico, Japan, and northern Australia. Invasive species of any type can devastate local ecologies, and are almost never a good thing. Never ever dump unwanted fish into the wild.
Most cichlids stick to the shallows in the wild, although there are exceptions to this; a couple of species have been found at 490’ below the surface of Lake Malawi.
A few species have adapted to brackish habitats such as mangrove swamps where freshwater rivers drain into the oceans.
Would you like to know more about the areas that cichlids come from and the types of cichlids that reside in those areas?
South American Cichlids
Central American Cichlids
Where do cichlids come from – the evolution
Cichlids (sick-lids) are freshwater fish from the family Cichlidae in the order Perciformes. They are an incredibly diverse family with over 1600 described species and an estimated 2000-3000 different species overall.
Cichlids vary greatly in size, with the smallest measuring in at about 1”, and the largest at over 3’ long. They also show wide variation in body shape with some growing in elongated tubes, others that are laterally compressed, and still others that are triangular or resemble vertical dinner plates. Most are typically “fish-shaped” for want of a better word, having similar body types to perch or sunfish.
For those few with an interest in anatomy and taxonomy, the characteristic which defines and unites cichlids as a family are that their lower pharyngeal bones are fused into a single, tooth-bearing structure. This effectively gives them a second set of jaws to help process food.
Cichlids are remarkably successful in terms of their evolution; in fact they represent one of the largest vertebrate families in the world.
One likely reason for their success is that cichlids are highly specialized feeders that catch and eat a wide variety of foods. They also tend to be quite hardy fish who adapt well to niches in different ecologies leading to further speciation.
Much of the diversity of cichlid species has arisen quite recently on the geological timescale.
Many species are quite well suited to aquarium life. Cichlids tend to be attractive and active fish, and are quite distinct from other aquarium fish by their display of highly complex, ritual behavior. Unlike many fish that spawn and immediately abandon their eggs to the vagaries of chance, all cichlids display distinct parental care, protecting both eggs and fry from predation.
Cichlids either form monogamous pairs or mate in a polygamous fashion depending on species. Polygamous species normally consist of one male to multiple females, with the mothers providing the bulk of parental care in these species.
Moreover, many cichlids are personable, both recognizing and responding to their keepers in ways that other fish do not. Many cichlids are quite territorial and/or aggressive, and care needs to be taken to have compatible tank mates.