African Cichlids: Complete Care Guide, Popular Types & Tips!

African cichlids are a captivating group of freshwater fish known for their dazzling colors and intricate patterns. Belonging to the cichlid family, these fish are readily available and relatively inexpensive, making them popular among aquarium enthusiasts.

However, due to their aggressive and territorial nature, some species may not be suitable for beginners. This comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about African cichlids, including their origins, appearance, care, and breeding.

Introduction to African Cichlids

African cichlids are a diverse group of freshwater fish that belong to the Cichlidae family. They are renowned for their vibrant colors, which make them a popular choice for aquarium enthusiasts.

There are several types of African cichlids to choose from, including peacock cichlids, red zebra cichlids, bumblebee cichlids, blue cichlids, and kribensis cichlids.

Though they are visually stunning, these fish can be aggressive and territorial, so some species might not be the best option for beginner fishkeepers.

Scientific name: Pseudotropheus sp.
Common names: African cichlid
Distribution: East Africa
Size: 2–12 inches
Life expectancy: 6–10 years
Color: Various colors including blue, yellow, pink, green, red, and purple, with spots or stripes
Diet: Carnivore
Temperament: Aggressive
Minimum tank size: 30 gallons
Temperature: 75–85°F (24–29°C)
pH: 7.8–8.6
Hardness: 12–30 dGH
Care level: Moderate
Breeding: Egg layer or mouthbrooder, depending on the type of African cichlid

African Cichlid Habitats

African cichlids inhabit three major African lakes: Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. The warm, clear waters, sandy substrates, abundant vegetation, and high density of freshwater fish characterize these natural habitats.

You can typically find most African cichlids in the shallow areas of their respective environments. Here, they actively search for food by foraging through the sand.

The abundant plant life provides both shelter and sustenance for these vibrant fish, while the sandy substrate allows them to sift through the grains in search of edible morsels.

The combination of these factors creates a thriving ecosystem teeming with diverse aquatic life.

African Cichlids

Popular African Cichlid Types

Cichlids encompass a diverse range of fish species, with over 1,600 types found in various parts of the world. They exhibit a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, making them a favorite among aquarists.

Some popular cichlid varieties include the vibrant African cichlids from Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria, as well as Central and South American cichlids like the angelfish and discus.

Other notable types include the dwarf cichlids and the striking flowerhorn cichlids, each boasting unique characteristics and appearances. With such a vast array of options, there is a cichlid species suitable for virtually every aquarium setup and experience level.

As mentioned earlier, there are several types of African cichlids that you can choose from, each with its unique appearance and characteristics. Let’s delve deeper into the popular varieties and their specific features.

Peacock Cichlids

Peacock cichlids, also known as Aulonocara, are native to Lake Malawi. These fish are characterized by their vibrant colors, which range from bright blues, yellows, and reds to more subtle oranges and purples.

Males tend to be more colorful than females. Peacock cichlids are one of the most sought-after African cichlid types due to their vibrant colors and relatively peaceful nature. They come in various colors, including blue, red, yellow, and green.

Males are typically more brightly colored than females, which is a common trait among many African cichlid species. Peacock cichlids require a minimum tank size of 55 gallons and prefer a rocky habitat with hiding spots.

Red Zebra Cichlids

Red zebra cichlids, also known as Metriaclima estherae, are endemic to Lake Malawi. They are known for their bright red or orange coloration and bold, territorial behavior.

Red zebra cichlids grow up to 5 inches in length and are best kept in groups to distribute aggression. A minimum tank size of 50 gallons is recommended for these fish, with plenty of rocks and hiding spots.

Bumblebee Cichlids

Bumblebee cichlids (Pseudotropheus crabro) are easily recognized by their elongated bodies and striking yellow and black coloration, reminiscent of a bumblebee.

They are aggressive and territorial fish, best suited for experienced fishkeepers. Bumblebee cichlids require a minimum tank size of 50 gallons with numerous hiding places and a sandy substrate for digging.

Blue Dolphin Cichlids

Blue cichlids, also known as Malawi blue dolphins cichlids (Cyrtocara moorii), are characterized by their bright blue coloration and unique hump on their forehead. These gentle giants can grow up to 10 inches and require a spacious tank of at least 75 gallons.

Blue cichlids are more peaceful than other African cichlids and can be kept with less aggressive tankmates.

Kribensis Cichlids

Kribensis cichlids, or Pelvicachromis pulcher, are found in West African rivers, rather than the Great Lakes. These fish are smaller than their Great Lake counterparts, reaching up to 4 inches in length.

Kribensis cichlids are known for their colorful bodies, which typically feature a red belly and a yellow or green back, with blue or purple highlights. They are less aggressive than other African cichlid species and are suitable for community tanks.

Pelvicachromis pulcher are a popular choice for beginner fishkeepers due to their small size, bright colors, and relatively peaceful nature. Kribensis cichlids can be housed in a 30-gallon tank and thrive in a well-planted environment with hiding spots.

Where to Buy African Cichlids

African cichlids are widely available, and most stores sell several types and color variations of these fish. You can find African cichlids in local aquarium stores and online.

The typical cost of an African cichlid ranges from $6 to $30, depending on the rarity and uniqueness of the species.

Some reputable online stores selling African cichlids include:

  • LiveAquaria, which offers more than 30 African cichlid species, such as red zebra cichlids, blue peacock cichlids, and frontosa cichlids.

  • Aquatic Arts, which also sells over 30 African cichlid types, including African fire cichlids, lemon cichlids, and black diamond cichlids.

Cichlids Fish

African Cichlid Appearance and Behavior

African cichlids exhibit a wide range of colors and patterns, making them highly sought-after by aquarium enthusiasts.

While males are generally more colorful than females, both sexes can display intricate markings and unique color combinations. African cichlids can grow anywhere from 3 to 12 inches, depending on the species.

In terms of behavior, African cichlids are known for their aggression and territoriality. They are highly active and intelligent fish, which can make them both fascinating and challenging to keep.

Some species may not be suitable for beginners, as they require careful monitoring and management to prevent conflicts in the tank.

Bumblebee Cichlid

Caring for African Cichlids: Tank Setup and Requirements

Proper care and tank setup are crucial for the well-being of your African cichlids.

The following guidelines will help ensure a suitable environment for these vibrant fish:

Tank Size

African cichlids need ample space to thrive, so a larger tank is always better. A minimum of 30 gallons is recommended for a single species tank, while a 55-gallon tank or larger is ideal for housing multiple species.

Water Parameters

African cichlids require specific water conditions to thrive. Aim for a temperature between 75°F and 82°F, a pH between 7.5 and 8.5, and a water hardness between 10 and 20 dGH. Regular water testing and maintenance are essential to ensure a stable environment.

Substrate and Decor

A sandy substrate is recommended, as African cichlids enjoy digging and sifting through the sand. Provide plenty of hiding spots using rocks, caves, and driftwood to create territories for your fish.

Incorporating live plants can also enhance the tank’s appearance and help maintain water quality, but choose sturdy species like Anubias or Java fern, as African cichlids may uproot more delicate plants.

Filtration and Aeration

A powerful filter is essential for maintaining water quality in an African cichlid tank, as these fish produce a significant amount of waste.

Choose a filter with a flow rate of at least 4-6 times the tank volume per hour. Additionally, ensure proper aeration using air stones or a sponge filter to keep the oxygen levels optimal.

Feeding African Cichlids

African cichlids have varied dietary requirements based on their species. Understanding their specific needs will help you provide a balanced and nutritious diet for your fish.

Here’s an overview of African cichlid dietary preferences:

  1. Herbivores: Some African cichlids, especially Mbuna species, are primarily herbivorous, feeding on algae and plant matter. Provide them with a diet high in vegetable matter, such as spirulina flakes, blanched vegetables, and algae wafers.

  2. Omnivores: Many African cichlids are omnivorous, requiring a mix of plant and animal-based foods. Offer them a balanced diet with high-quality flake or pellet food, supplemented with fresh or frozen foods, such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, and vegetables.

  3. Carnivores: Some African cichlids, like the peacock cichlids, are carnivorous and require a diet rich in protein. Provide them with high-quality carnivore pellets, as well as live, frozen, or freeze-dried foods like bloodworms, brine shrimp, and krill.

  4. Feeding Frequency: Feed your African cichlids 2-3 times per day, offering only as much food as they can consume within a few minutes. Overfeeding can lead to poor water quality and health issues.


African Cichlid Substrate and Decorations

Substrate and decorations play an important role in the well-being of African cichlids. By providing a comfortable and natural environment, you can ensure their health and happiness.

Here are some recommendations for substrate and decorations:

  1. Substrate: Use a sandy substrate for African cichlids, as it closely mimics their natural habitat. Sand also allows them to sift through the substrate without harming themselves. Some popular options include crushed coral sand and aragonite sand, which help to maintain the desired water parameters for African cichlids.

  2. Decorations: Provide plenty of hiding spots, such as caves and rock formations, for your African cichlids. This will help to reduce aggression and territorial disputes among tank mates. You can use various materials, such as lava rocks, holey rocks, and slate, to create these hiding places. Ensure the rocks are secure and won’t topple over, causing injury to your fish.

  3. Aquatic Plants: African cichlids may uproot and eat some aquatic plants, but you can still include sturdy and fast-growing plants in your tank. Some suitable plant options include Java fern, Vallisneria, and Anubias, which can be attached to rocks or driftwood.

Health and Disease Prevention

African cichlids can be susceptible to various diseases, and prevention is the best approach to ensure a healthy aquarium. Maintain optimal water quality by conducting regular water changes, testing the water parameters, and promptly addressing any issues that arise.

In addition to the diseases previously discussed, here are some other common health issues affecting African cichlids:


Ich, or white spot disease, is a parasitic infection that appears as tiny white spots on the fish’s body, fins, and gills.

Fish infected with ich may exhibit behaviors such as rubbing against tank decorations and rapid gill movement.

Treating ich involves raising the water temperature, adding aquarium salt, and using a medication specifically designed for ich treatment.

Swim Bladder Disease

Swim bladder disease affects the fish’s ability to maintain buoyancy, causing them to swim abnormally or have difficulty staying upright.

A variety of factors, including subpar water quality, excessive feeding, or even physical injuries, may contribute to the development of this condition.

By addressing these potential causes and maintaining a proper aquatic environment, you can help prevent such issues and ensure the well-being of your aquatic pets.

Treatment depends on the underlying cause but may involve adjusting the water parameters, feeding a high-quality diet, or administering antibiotics if an infection is present.


Dropsy is a symptom of an internal bacterial infection that causes the fish’s abdomen to swell due to fluid accumulation.

Affected fish may exhibit pinecone-like scales and a loss of appetite. Unfortunately, dropsy is often fatal, but prompt treatment with antibiotics and Epsom salt may improve the fish’s chances of recovery.

African Cichlid Tank Mates

When considering tank mates for African cichlids, it’s important to keep their aggressive and territorial nature in mind.

When housing African cichlids alongside other fish species, it’s crucial to plan meticulously and consider various factors to guarantee the welfare of every tank inhabitant.

By taking the necessary precautions and paying attention to the specific needs of each species, you can create a harmonious and thriving aquatic environment for all the fish to coexist peacefully.

Suitable Tank Mates for African Cichlids

The best tank mates for African cichlids are typically other African cichlids of similar size, temperament, and water requirements.

Some suitable tank mates for African cichlids include:

  • Other African Cichlids: It’s usually best to stick with cichlids from the same lake, such as keeping Malawi cichlids with other Malawi species, or Tanganyika cichlids with other Tanganyika species. Mixing species from different lakes may lead to aggression, stress, or hybridization.

  • Catfish: Some catfish species, such as Synodontis catfish, can coexist with African cichlids due to their similar water requirements and ability to defend themselves from aggression.

  • Plecostomus: Larger pleco species can be suitable tank mates for African cichlids because of their armored bodies, which protect them from cichlid aggression.

Tips for Introducing Tank Mates

To minimize stress and aggression when introducing tank mates, consider the following tips:

  1. Add fish simultaneously: Introducing all fish to the tank at the same time can help to reduce territorial disputes as they establish their territories simultaneously.

  2. Rearrange tank decorations: Before introducing new fish, rearrange the tank decorations to disrupt any established territories.

  3. Monitor closely: Keep a close eye on the interactions between the fish, especially in the beginning. Remove any fish that show signs of extreme aggression or stress.

Tank Mates to Avoid For African Cichlids

Due to their aggressive nature, African cichlids are not suitable tank mates for many community fish species.

Avoid keeping African cichlids with:

  • Small, peaceful fish: These fish, such as tetras, guppies, or angelfish, are likely to become targets for cichlid aggression and may not survive in the same tank.

  • Slow-moving fish: Fish with long, flowing fins or slow movements, like goldfish or discus, are not suitable for African cichlid tanks as they may be harassed or attacked.

African cichlids are fascinating and colorful fish that can make a stunning addition to a well-planned and maintained aquarium.

Their aggressive nature requires careful consideration when setting up their habitat, selecting tank mates, and providing proper care.

With the right approach, these beautiful fish can thrive and bring a unique, vibrant touch to your aquatic environment.

Cichlid Fish

Breeding African Cichlids

Breeding African cichlids can be a rewarding experience, but it requires proper planning and care. These cichlids have a unique breeding behavior known as mouthbrooding, where the female carries the eggs and fry in her mouth for protection.

This process can make breeding these fish a fascinating experience for fishkeepers.

To encourage breeding, maintain optimal water parameters, provide a high-quality diet, and offer a suitable environment with plenty of hiding spots.

It is also essential to establish a proper male to female ratio, usually one male to multiple females, to reduce aggression and increase the likelihood of successful breeding.

The following steps will help you successfully breed your African cichlids:

Setting Up a Breeding Tank

Set up a separate breeding tank with similar water parameters to the main tank. A 20-gallon tank is usually sufficient for most species. Provide hiding spots and territories using rocks, caves, and PVC pipes.

Selecting Breeding Pairs

Choose healthy, mature fish with vibrant colors and no signs of illness or injury. It’s best to have a higher ratio of females to males to prevent excessive aggression during the breeding process.

Conditioning the Breeders

Feed the breeding pairs a high-quality diet rich in proteins and vitamins to stimulate breeding behavior. This may include live or frozen foods like brine shrimp or bloodworms.

Monitoring the Breeding Process

African cichlids are substrate-spawners or mouthbrooders, depending on their species.

Keep a close watch on the breeding process, and once the parents have laid the eggs or the fry have hatched, promptly remove either the parents or the eggs/fry.

Taking this precautionary step will help prevent predation, ensuring the safety and survival of the newly hatched offspring.

Raising the Fry

Feed the fry with specially formulated fry food or crushed flakes, along with newly hatched brine shrimp. Perform regular water changes to maintain optimal water quality.


African cichlids are a diverse and vibrant group of fish that can add unparalleled beauty to your aquarium. With proper care, tank setup, and maintenance, these fascinating fish can thrive in a home aquarium for years. It’s essential to research the specific needs of your chosen species, as their requirements can differ significantly.

By understanding the unique characteristics of African cichlids, such as their aggression, territoriality, and dietary needs, you can create a harmonious environment for these beautiful fish.

With the right combination of tankmates, decorations, and water parameters, you’ll be able to enjoy the stunning display of colors and behaviors that African cichlids offer.

Additionally, African cichlid breeding can be a fulfilling hobby for experienced fishkeepers, allowing you to witness the fascinating life cycle of these incredible fish.

By following the guidelines provided in this article, you’ll be well on you

r way to creating a thriving African cichlid community in your aquarium.

African cichlids are a testament to the rich biodiversity of African lakes, and their care requires dedication and attention to detail.

With proper research and commitment, you can enjoy the captivating beauty and intriguing behaviors of these remarkable freshwater fish for years to come.