Convict Cichlids (Zebra Cichlid) – Tank Mates & Detailed Guide!

Convict cichlids (Amatitlania nigrofasciata), also known as zebra cichlids, are a popular and fascinating species of fish for aquarium enthusiasts.

This comprehensive guide will provide you with essential information on convict cichlids, their care, breeding, and habitat.

General Description

Convict cichlids display striking black and white stripes, hence their nickname “zebra cichlids.” They come in a variety of colors and contrasts, with females generally exhibiting brighter colors than males.

Females typically grow to about 5 cm (2 inches) in length, while males can reach up to 6.5 cm (2.6 inches). Both sexes have similar weights, ranging from 33 to 37 grams.

In the wild, convict cichlids have vertical black stripes on a greyish-blue body, numbering 8 to 9.

Males are generally larger than females and have more pointed fins. As males age, they may develop fatty lumps on their foreheads, which have no known function.

The average life expectancy of the convict cichlid is up to 10 years.

Care Level: Moderate
Temperament: Aggressive
Color: Black, white
Lifespan: Over 8 years
Size: Up to 6 inches
Diet: Omnivore
Family: Cichlidae
Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
Tank Setup: Freshwater: driftwood and caves
Compatibility: Limited: aggressive

Species Origin

Convict cichlids (Amatitlania nigrofasciata) are native to Central America, inhabiting both the Pacific and Atlantic slopes from Guatemala to Costa Rica.

They are primarily found in rivers and streams, preferring habitats with rocky substrates, crevices, and caves that provide shelter and hiding spots.

These adaptable fish can also be found in lakes and ponds, as well as in warm springs and coastal lagoons.

Conservation Status

The convict cichlid is not currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is considered to be of “Least Concern” due to its wide distribution and stable population.

However, it is essential to note that the introduction of convict cichlids to non-native environments can have negative impacts on local ecosystems, as they can outcompete native species for food and resources.

Therefore, responsible pet ownership and proper disposal of aquarium fish and plants are crucial in preventing the spread of non-native species.

Convict Cichlid Habitat

Native to Central America, convict cichlids inhabit the east coast from Guatemala to Costa Rica and the west coast from Honduras to Panama.

They prefer flowing water and are commonly found in rocky habitats with fissures and crevices for hiding.

These fish are quite adaptable and can survive in a pH range of 6.6 to 7.8, although they prefer neutral conditions.

They are also more tolerant of cooler temperatures but may exhibit increased aggression in warmer climates.

Outside their native range, convict cichlids have been introduced to Mexico, Japan, Colombia, and Australia.

Tank Requirements

To provide an optimal environment for your convict cichlids, it is essential to pay attention to the following tank requirements:

Tank Size

  • A minimum of 30 gallons is recommended for a pair of convict cichlids.

  • If housing multiple cichlids or other fish species, consider a larger tank to accommodate their territorial behavior.

Tank Decorations

  • Furnish the tank with rocks, caves, and hiding spots to mimic their rocky habitats in the wild.

  • Include live plants to help maintain water quality and provide cover for the fish.


  • Use a sandy or fine gravel substrate that allows the cichlids to dig and sift through it comfortably.

Water Parameters

  • Maintain a water temperature between 22°C and 28°C (72°F to 82°F).

  • Keep the pH level between 6.6 and 7.8.

  • Ensure water hardness remains within the range of 6-15 dGH.

Filtration and Water Changes

  • Use a high-quality filter suitable for the tank size to maintain water quality.

  • Perform regular water changes (approximately 25-30% every two weeks) to prevent the build-up of toxins and waste.

Diet and Feeding

Convict cichlids are omnivorous and require a balanced diet to thrive.

To ensure the health and well-being of your convict cichlids, provide a balanced diet consisting of the following:

Staple Diet

  • High-quality pellets or flakes specifically designed for cichlids, which contain essential nutrients and vitamins.

Protein Sources

  • Live or frozen foods such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, and daphnia, which provide essential proteins and promote healthy growth.

Vegetable Matter

  • Vegetables like blanched spinach, zucchini, and peas, which offer essential nutrients and fiber.

Feeding Frequency

  • Feed adult convict cichlids twice a day.

  • Feed juveniles three to four times daily.

Feeding Guidelines

  • Provide only as much food as the fish can consume in 2 to 3 minutes to prevent overfeeding and maintain water quality.

By offering a varied and balanced diet, you will promote the overall health, vitality, and longevity of your convict cichlids.

Convict Cichlid Tank Mates

Choosing suitable tank mates for convict cichlids is crucial due to their territorial and aggressive nature.

It is essential to select fish species that can coexist peacefully and tolerate the assertiveness of convict cichlids.

Here are some recommendations for compatible tank mates:

  • Larger cichlid species such as Firemouth Cichlids (Thorichthys meeki), Jack Dempsey Cichlids (Rocio octofasciata), and Green Terrors (Andinoacara rivulatus)

  • Semi-aggressive fish like Tiger Barbs (Puntigrus tetrazona), Rainbowfish (Melanotaeniidae family), and Giant Danios (Devario aequipinnatus)

  • Bottom-dwelling species such as Plecos (Hypostomus plecostomus) and larger Corydoras (Corydoras genus), as they tend to stay out of the convict cichlids’ territory

  • Fast-swimming species like Swordtails (Xiphophorus hellerii) and Mollies (Poecilia genus) that can evade aggression

Avoid pairing convict cichlids with smaller, more timid fish, as they may become targets for aggression.

Aquarium Decoration

An appropriately decorated aquarium not only enhances the visual appeal but also helps provide a comfortable environment for your convict cichlids.

Consider the following tips for decorating your aquarium:

Rocks and Caves

  • Create a natural-looking environment with rocks, caves, and driftwood, which provide hiding spots and territories for your convict cichlids.

  • Ensure that rocks are securely positioned to avoid any accidental toppling that could harm the fish or damage the tank.

Live Plants

  • Incorporate live plants such as Anubias, Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus), and Amazon Sword (Echinodorus amazonicus), which can tolerate the digging behavior of convict cichlids.

  • Floating plants like Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) can provide cover and additional hiding spots.


  • Use a natural-looking aquarium background to create depth and make the fish feel more secure in their environment.


  • Ensure that the aquarium lighting is not too bright, as convict cichlids prefer a more subdued environment. A dimmer switch or adjustable LED light can help achieve the right balance.

By carefully selecting and arranging aquarium decorations, you can create a visually appealing and functional environment that meets the needs of your convict cichlids and promotes their well-being.

Convict Cichlid Behavior

Convict cichlids are known for their territorial and aggressive behavior, especially during breeding. To minimize aggression, it is crucial to provide ample hiding spots and territorial boundaries within the tank.

If housing multiple cichlids, a larger tank with more hiding places is necessary. When keeping convict cichlids with other fish species, choose tankmates that can tolerate their assertive nature, such as larger or semi-aggressive fish.

Social Interactions and Group Dynamics

Convict cichlids exhibit complex social behaviors and interactions, which make them an intriguing subject for aquarium enthusiasts.

Understanding their social dynamics is essential for maintaining a harmonious and balanced environment in the tank.


  • In a community tank, convict cichlids often establish a hierarchy based on size, age, and aggression levels.

  • Dominant individuals typically occupy prime territories and are more likely to breed successfully.

Pair Bonding

  • Convict cichlids form monogamous pair bonds, which can last throughout their reproductive life.

  • Bonded pairs defend their territories and cooperate in raising their offspring.

Aggression Management

  • Ensure that the aquarium has adequate hiding spots and territorial boundaries to minimize aggression and stress.

  • In larger tanks, housing multiple pairs can help disperse aggression and reduce the dominance of a single pair.

Color Variations and Patterns

Convict cichlids exhibit a wide range of colors and patterns, which contribute to their popularity in the aquarium hobby. Some of the notable variations include:

Natural Coloration

  • The most common coloration features a grayish-blue body with vertical black stripes, mimicking the appearance of prison uniforms, hence the name “convict cichlid.”

  • Females tend to have a more vibrant and contrasting pattern compared to males.

Albino Convict Cichlids

  • Albino variants have a white or pale yellow body color with faint or no black stripes.

  • Their eyes are often red or pink due to the lack of pigmentation.

Marble Convict Cichlids

  • Marble convict cichlids display an irregular, blotchy pattern with a mix of black, white, and gray colors.

  • This variation is the result of selective breeding and is not typically found in the wild.

Acclimation Process

Properly acclimating your convict cichlids to their new environment is crucial to ensure a smooth transition and minimize stress.

Follow these steps to introduce your convict cichlids to their new tank:

  1. Floating the bag: Place the unopened fish bag in your aquarium and let it float for 15 to 20 minutes. This allows the water temperature in the bag to equalize with the tank water.

  2. Adding tank water to the bag: Slowly add small amounts of tank water to the bag over the course of 30 to 45 minutes. This introduces the fish to the tank’s water parameters gradually.

  3. Releasing the fish: Gently release the convict cichlids into the tank, avoiding the transfer of any water from the bag.

By carefully acclimating your convict cichlids, you can minimize the risk of stress-related health issues and ensure a successful introduction to their new home.

With these additional topics and information, this comprehensive guide on convict cichlids now provides a complete overview of their care, maintenance, and fascinating characteristics.

By following these guidelines, you can create an ideal environment for your convict cichlids to thrive and enjoy their captivating behaviors for many years.

Breeding and Reproduction

Convict cichlids are prolific breeders and, when provided with a secure environment, will breed frequently. They form monogamous pairs and exhibit biparental care for their offspring.

To encourage breeding, include flat rocks or clay pots in the tank, which serve as potential breeding sites.

The female will lay between 100 and 300 eggs, which she will attach to a flat surface. Both parents will guard the eggs, which will hatch in approximately 3 to 4 days.

The fry will begin swimming after 5 to 7 days, at which point they can be fed a diet of crushed flakes, baby brine shrimp, or microworms.

The parents will fiercely protect their young for up to 6 months, displaying aggression towards other fish if necessary.

It is essential to monitor the tank and separate the fry from their parents and other fish once they become independent.

Breeding Behavior and Fry Care

Understanding the breeding behavior of convict cichlids and providing proper care for the fry is essential for hobbyists interested in breeding these fascinating fish.

Breeding Triggers

  • Convict cichlids may breed when they reach sexual maturity, usually around six months of age.

  • Stable water conditions, proper diet, and adequate space can encourage breeding behavior.

Spawning Site

  • Convict cichlids often choose a flat surface or cave as their spawning site.

  • Ensure the presence of suitable sites such as flat rocks, caves, or even overturned flower pots in your aquarium.

Parental Care

  • Both parents share responsibilities in guarding eggs, fanning them to ensure oxygen supply, and protecting the fry once they hatch.

  • Convict cichlids are known for their aggressive parental instincts, so monitor the tank closely and be prepared to separate them from other fish if needed.

Feeding Fry

  • Newly hatched fry can be fed with infusoria or newly hatched brine shrimp.

  • As they grow, transition them to crushed flakes or pellets suitable for cichlid fry.

Common Diseases and Treatment

Convict cichlids are generally hardy and resistant to many common fish diseases. However, maintaining optimal water quality and a stress-free environment is crucial to their overall health.

Monitor the water parameters regularly and conduct water changes to prevent the build-up of toxins.

Like all aquarium fish, convict cichlids are susceptible to certain diseases.

Early detection and treatment can help ensure the health and well-being of your fish.

Ich (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis)

  • Symptoms: White spots on the body, gills, and fins; increased gill movement; rubbing against surfaces

  • Treatment: Increase water temperature to 30°C (86°F) for a few days, use a medication containing malachite green or formalin, perform regular water changes

Fin Rot

  • Symptoms: Frayed or disintegrating fins, redness near the base of the fins

  • Treatment: Improve water quality, use an antibiotic or antibacterial medication specifically designed for fin rot

Hole-in-the-Head Disease

  • Symptoms: Lesions or pits on the fish’s head, loss of appetite, lethargy

  • Treatment: Improve water quality, use a medication containing metronidazole, ensure a balanced diet with essential nutrients

By monitoring your convict-cichlids regularly and maintaining optimal water conditions, you can help prevent diseases and ensure the health of your fish.

Tips for Selecting Healthy Convict Cichlids

When choosing convict cichlids for your aquarium, look for the following signs of health:

  1. Clear and bright eyes

  2. Intact fins with no signs of fraying or discoloration

  3. Active and alert swimming behavior

  4. Healthy appetite and interest in food

  5. Smooth and clean scales with no visible marks, spots, or lesions

Avoid purchasing fish that exhibit any signs of illness, injury, or lethargy, as they may require special care and could potentially introduce diseases to your aquarium.

Tank Maintenance Tips

Proper tank maintenance is essential for the long-term health and well-being of your convict cichlids.

Follow these tips to ensure a clean and stable environment:

  1. Clean the tank regularly: Wipe down the tank walls and decorations to prevent the build-up of algae and organic matter.

  2. Vacuum the substrate: Use a gravel vacuum to remove waste and debris from the substrate during water changes.

  3. Inspect equipment: Regularly check the filter, heater, and other equipment to ensure proper functioning and replace or repair as needed.

  4. Prune live plants: Trim dead or decaying plant matter to maintain water quality and plant health.

  5. Test water parameters: Regularly test the water for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, and hardness levels to ensure a stable and healthy environment.

By following these maintenance tips, you can keep your aquarium in optimal condition and provide a healthy environment for your convict cichlids.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we will address some common questions related to the care and maintenance of convict cichlid fish, aiming to provide answers to users’ search intents.

How can I tell the sex of my convict cichlids?

Males are generally larger, have more pointed dorsal and anal fins, and may develop a fatty hump on their foreheads as they age.

Females are smaller, have rounder and less pointed fins, and exhibit brighter and more vibrant coloration, especially during the breeding season.

Can convict cichlids change color?

Yes, convict cichlids can change color based on factors such as stress, mood, or breeding status. For example, females may display a brighter orange color on their bellies during breeding, while stressed fish may show faded or pale colors.

Are convict cichlids suitable for beginners?

Convict cichlid fish are relatively hardy and adaptable, making them suitable for beginners.

However, their aggressive behavior and specific care requirements should be considered before adding them to an aquarium.

How many convict cichlids can I keep in my tank?

The general rule of thumb is to allocate 2-3 gallons of water per inch of fish.

A single pair of convict cichlids can be kept in a 30-gallon tank, while larger groups will require more space to accommodate their territorial needs.

What should I do if my convict cichlids become too aggressive?

If aggression becomes a problem, consider adding more hiding spots or barriers to the tank, reorganizing the decorations to disrupt established territories, or separating the aggressive fish from the others.

In some cases, it may be necessary to set up a separate tank for the aggressive individuals.

By addressing these frequently asked questions, we aim to provide valuable information for convict cichlid owners and help them better understand the needs and behaviors of their fish.


Convict cichlids are captivating and rewarding fish for aquarium enthusiasts. With their striking appearance, fascinating behavior, and adaptability, they make a unique addition to any aquarium.

By providing the appropriate tank environment, a balanced diet, and proper care, you can enjoy a thriving convict cichlid community for many years.

Remember to consider their territorial and aggressive nature when planning your aquarium setup and selecting tankmates.

With the right care and attention, These cichlids can live up to 10 years, providing a fascinating and enjoyable aquarium experience.