Plain Goby Cichlid

Goby Cichlid

Family: Cichlidae Plain Goby CichlidSpathodus marlieriPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Frank Schneidewind

  The Plain Goby Cichlid is the largest goby of all goby species in Lake Tanganyika!

   The Plain Goby Cichlid is the largest of the gobies and also the most tolerant of other goby species. They are comical in appearance and in personality. A great choice for any cichlid enthusiast who has limited space and cannot provide a large aquarium. As long as their needs are met, they are easy to moderate to care for. Their larger size also makes them more visible than their smaller cousins. They are a joy and a colorful addition to the aquarium.

   The Plain Goby Cichlid can be kept alone or in pairs but are generally not tolerant of others of their species. They primarily inhabit the bottom of the tank so can be housed with some other mid-water cichlids. Provide stacked rocks with lots of caves and crevices for hiding and flat stones in the front for perching. Some natural sunlight will help algae growth on the stones which the gobies relish.

Lake Tanganyika Goby Cichlids
The Goby cichlids from Lake Tanganyika are an intriguing and attractive group of fish.
Currently there are five recognized species in three genera: Plain Goby Cichlid Spathodus marlieri,
Blue Goby Cichlid Spathodus erythrodon, Spotfin Goby Cichlid Tanganicodus irsacae, and two variants of the Tanganykan Goby Cichlid Eretmodus cyanostictus and Eretmodus cyanostictus (north).

   These fish are unique both the natural environment in which they are found and in body shape. Scientists speculate that their body shape is most likely an adaptation to their environment. They are small fish, give or take around 3" in length. They live close to the shore in shallow waters, usually less than 3 feet (1 m) and never more than 10 feet (3 m). The sandy substrate is strewn with rocks and pebbles. These are fast moving waters subject to 'surge', where the shoreline is continuously washed with wind driven waves.This 'surge zone' habitat creates some unique situations for Goby cichlids:

  • The shallow waters get good sunlight penetration and have relatively clear visibility, but the Goby cichlids are difficult to see. Their interesting color patterns that can readily be seen in the aquarium create a camouflage in the wild.The rocky rubble substrate has plenty of healthy algae growth which houses small crustaceans and insect larvae. This provides a diverse diet for this bottom dwelling cichlid.There are few aquatic predators in such shallow water, but these areas are preyed upon by birds. The Goby cichlids forage the substrate with their snout like mouths while with their eyes, mounted high on the head, and their heavily spined dorsal fin help them evade airborne predators.
  • The rugged water movement requires special adaptations so that these shallow dwelling fish do not get picked up and dashed into the rocks
    ~ Their swim bladder is greatly reduced giving them little buoyancy. This keeps them close to the bottom and makes for a rather comical hopping motion when they swim.
    ~ Their pelvic fins are positioned downward and have stiff heavy spines. Perching on their pelvic fins helps them cling to the substrate and maintain their position in the fast moving waters.

For more Information on keeping this fish see:
Guide to a Happy, Healthy Freshwater Aquarium

Geographic Distribution
Spathodus marlieri
Data provided by
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Spathodus
  • Species: marlieri
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Distribution:    The Plain Goby Cichlid was described by Poll in 1950. These fish are endemic to the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, Africa. They prefer the top part of the water column, not often venturing below 6.5 feet (2 m). They inhabit the rubble or pebble edges of the shoreline, called the 'surge zone', swimming long distances looking for food. This area is continually washed by waves that are driven by the wind, and has a pH of over 9 due to the release of oxygen at the shore called "faunal exhaust." They are found alone or in pairs. Their routine is different from their cousin the Blue Goby Cichlid Spathodus erythrodon, who 'hops' from place to place.

Status:    This species is listed on the IUCN Red List with the status of 'LC', meaning 'Least Concern'.

Description:    The body of the Plain Goby Cichlid has darker brown splotches with electric sky blue dots on the front half of the body. The back half is a lighter plain color. The belly is lighter still. The dorsal, tail, and anal fins are a very light blue tipped in a muted gold and lined in brown. They have a unique shape with their top lip almost looking like an "overbite." Their eyes are located toward the top of their head. They have one row of teeth on each side of their jaw that are long and curved with tips that are blunt. They use their teeth for eating algae off of rocks.
  With the name goby, one would rightly picture a hopping motion that these fish use due to the absence of a swim bladder. Their pectoral fins are heavy, sharp and located lower than other cichlids. They use these fins in an almost "foot" like application by pointing them straight down and digging into the rock or rubble to keep from being thrown around by waves. It is unknown how long this fish lives.
  All cichlids share a common feature that some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish have and that is a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth that are in the throat, along with their regular teeth. Cichlids have spiny rays in the back parts of the anal, dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins to help discourage predators. The front part of these fins are soft and perfect for precise positions and effortless movements in the water as opposed to fast swimming.
   Cichlids have one nostril on each side while other fish have 2 sets. To sense "smells" in the water, they suck water in and expel the water right back out after being "sampled" for a short or longer time, depending on how much the cichlid needs to "smell" the water. This feature is shared by saltwater damselfish and cichlids are thought to be closely related.

Size - Weight:    The Plain Goby Cichlid grows to a length of 2.5" (6.4 cm) in females and 4" (10.2 cm) in males.

Care and feeding:    The Plain Goby Cichlid is an omnivore. In the wild they pick algae and microorganisms from the rock biocover. In the aquarium they can be fed nutritious live foods, tablets, and some will accept frozen or flake. Flakes are often accepted by captive bred fish though captive caught fish are less enthusiastic. Provide a diet of high quality spirulina or vegetables such as blanched chopped peas, broccoli or lettuce. Also feed crustaceans, Cyclops, brine shrimp, glassworms, or other special foods for Lake Tanganyika cichlids. On rare occasions you can feed bloodworms, but beef heart and fish should be avoided. Feed 2 to 5 small pinches of food a day in smaller amounts instead of a large quantity once a day. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods.
   Though they are a smaller cichlid they are shy and need a minimum 30 gallon aquarium. They do fine in either freshwater or brackish freshwater but need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration. Extra aeration is suggested for optimal oxygen levels. With a fine sand substrate, undergravel filtration is very difficult to implement. An external canister filter or hang on tank filter can be used as long as the flow rate is higher than required for your particular tank because of the oxygenation that is required. Make sure the intakes are well above the sand and have a protective cover to prevent sand from entering the filter, or the impeller will wear out quickly.
   The best set up is a system of caves that reaches almost to the surface, formed by rocks or flowerpots. Though they primarily inhabit the bottom parts of the tank, this provides a higher refuge for the female when the male gets aggressive. A sandy substrate is needed as it is thought to aid in the Goby cichlid's digestion. It is helpful to use sand that is designed for marine aquariums which will help keep the pH high. Laying stones at the bottom and front of the tank for perching and growing the algae the gobies relish is also suggested. Positioning the tank near natural sunlight will encourage growing this beneficial algae.
   Do normal water changes of 10% to 15% a week, or more frequent changes depending on the nitrite/ammonia levels and stocking numbers. The Lake Tanganyika cichlids cannot handle large water changes very well unless the new water chemistry closely matches the water they are in. If a large water change is needed, changing 15% every couple of days should bring water back to normal. This inability to tolerate large water changes is due to Lake Tanganyika being very deep and the water tends to stay stable.
   These fish are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Water changes, not overfeeding or overcrowding, and observation along with feeding your fish the proper foods (thawing frozen food and adding vitamins) will keep them in optimum health. For freshwater an optional practice is to add 1 heaping teaspoon of salt per 11 gallons of water. This is considered to be a simple and natural remedy for wounds, minor fungal infections and film over the eyes of fish in transit.
   One common problem is Ich. It can be treated with the elevation of the tank temperature to 86° F (30° C) for 3 days. If that does not cure the Ich, then the fish needs to be treated with copper (remove any water conditioners). Several copper based fish medications are available for Ich. Copper use must be kept within the proper levels, so be sure to follow the manufacturers suggestions. You can also combine increasing the temperature with an Ich medication treatment. A copper test also can be used to keep the proper levels.      

Water Region: Top, Middle, Bottom:    These fish will swim on the bottom areas of the aquarium.

Acceptable Water Conditions:    The surge zone areas of Lake Tanganyika have a pH of over 9. This is due to the releases of oxygen at the shore called 'faunal exhaust'. Keep an eye on pH parameters for the Goby Cichlids. A higher pH means that ammonia is more lethal, so water changes are a must for these fish.
   Hardness: 10 - 20 dH
   Ph: 8.0+
   Temp: 75 - 81° F (25 - 27° C)

Lake Tanganyika is the second to largest lake in the world, thus contributing to a low fluctuation in pH and temperature. Several things all Lake Tanganyika cichlids need are:

  1. Stable temperatures kept within acceptable limits.
  2. Lots of oxygen to survive. Lake Tanganyika is a very oxygen rich lake. Bubblers need to be going day and night, even if there are plants.
  3. Avoid overfeeding and overstocking.
  4. Do a 10-15% water change weekly.
  5. Regularly check nitrates (no more than 25 ppm), pH (less than 7 is not tolerated), total hardness and carbonate hardness.

Social Behaviors:    The Plain Goby Cichlid is a community cichlid that can be kept with smaller mid-water swimming cichlids. They can be kept alone or in pairs, but are generally not tolerant of their own species when not paired up. In the wild they are the more tolerant of other goby species, but in the aquariam it is a gamble. They do best in a species specific tank if you want to see much of them or breed them.
   They can be kept with some other cichlids, but will feel threatened and hide if the other fish swim in the lower regions or compete for the same foods. They will stay hidden in the rockwork but won't get hurt. Housing with mid-water fish gives them more "room" and allows them to come out of hiding.

Sexual Differences:    When adults, the males seem to have larger heads and more coloring. It is possible to sex as juveniles when "venting" the fish, have a magnifying glass handy.

Breeding/Reproduction:    The Plain Goby Cichlid has been bred in captivity. These are the only gobies in the cichlidae family that are not biparental mouthbrooders. This may be because they are the largest of the gobies, allowing the female to carry the eggs full term. Only the female cares for the young from beginning to end. A strong bond between the male and female is established by buying around 6 juvenile Goby Cichlids and waiting for them to pair. Once they pair, remove the other fish. Just buying a male and female that are not paired will end in the female being harassed to death.
   The female will clear a flat spot in the tank and display to attract the male. She will lay only 1 or 2 eggs and then immediately pick them up in her mouth. The male then swims over and the female nuzzles his vent until he releases sperm, which she takes into her mouth to fertilize the eggs. She will do this over and over until 10 to 30 orange/yellow eggs are produced. The number is dependant on her age and nutritional levels.
   The female carries the eggs through hatching and full development of the fry. The female releases the fry at night, only letting out a few at a time in different areas, with the female waiting until they find a hiding place. If a fry does not seek shelter, the female pulls it back into her mouth before she moves on. Provide small shells and piles of small stones for the fry to hide in after they are released. Be sure to cover intakes with screen.
   If there is a need to remove the 10 mm (.3") long fry, wait until the female is done releasing the fry so as not to disturb her. Feed the fry Artemia nauplii, and within a few weeks they will graze on algae. They double their size in 6 weeks. In 4 to 5 months, they will reach .9" to 1.1" (2.5 - 3 cm) and are sexually mature between the 10th and 14th month after the female releases them. In the case of a male being too aggressive toward the female, she can be separated from the male. See more information on breeding cichlids in Breeding Freshwater Fish.

Availability:    The Plain Goby Cichlid is quite rare online or in fish stores. You may be able to special order, but it will probably run $30.00 to $50.00 USD for a small fish.

Authors: Carrie McBirney and Clarice Brough, CFS
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