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South American Cichlids

Fish Information and Cichlid Care for New World Cichlids

Family: Cichlidae Black Belt Cichlid, a large South American CichlidBlack Belt CichlidVieja maculicaudaPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Ken Childs

   South American Cichlids come in all sizes, colors and shapes... and are chock full of personality!

   South American cichlids are attractive, active, are generally quite durable fish. They are found in a range of sizes and with some very beautiful coloration. Their behaviors are very intriguing, and many interact with their keepers and their environment making them favorite aquarium fish for many hobbyists.

   The South American Cichlids or New World Cichlids are those found primarily in Central and South America, with a number of species native to Mexico, and the Texas Cichlid found in the southern part of North America. The "type specimen" for the cichlid family is the South American cichlid Cichla ocellaris, commonly known as the Peacock Bass or Peacock Cichlid. Thus the American cichlids are sometimes referred to as the "true cichlids" though all species are actually true cichlids.

  Cichlids are found around the globe, in the Americas, Africa and parts of Asia. The actual number of cichlid species is unknown but estimated at more than 2000, with at least 1300 species scientifically described. South American Cichlids and Central American Cichlids are estimated at about 570 species.

  They are categorized as "secondary freshwater fish" - meaning their ancestors were marine fish. It is believed that cichlids moved to freshwaters from the marine environment, and they have features relating to a number of marine species including the damsels, wrasses, parrot fish, and surfperches. This helps to explain why many species can do well in salty water, and in fact some species extend their range into parts of the ocean.

For Information on tropical fish care see:
Freshwater Aquarium Setup and Maintenance

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Cichlid Evolution

   The New world cichlids have an evolutionary history similar to that of their African counterparts, though with perhaps not as drastic results. Like the African Cichlids, they also were the first fishes to colonize the fresh waters that became available when the Central American land mass became elevated.

   The South American cichlids dominated the areas they inhabited, and similar to the African cichlids, they developed specializations of their own. Though most species have the classic fish body shape, they also include the disk-like forms of the popular Angelfish and Discus.

South American Habitat

  The Amazon River contains 1/5 of the world's fresh water and is home to well over 2000 species of fish. It is 4,080 miles, making it the second longest river in the world, but it still holds the record for the widest river. The Amazon starts in Peru among the Andes Mountains and empties into the Atlantic.

The Amazon River is 4,080 miles, making it the second longest river in the world, but it still holds the record for the widest river. This river starts in Peru among the Andes Mountains and empties into the Atlantic. The Amazon contains 1/5 of the world's fresh water and is home to over 2000 species of fish in waters that are acidic and extremely soft. The substrate is a mud-like clay and sand that is covered with leaf "litter" and plenty of plant growth in areas that the sun penetrates the trees above the river.

  The waters of the Amazon River are acidic and extremely soft. The substrate is a mud-like clay and sand, and areas where the sun penetrates the trees above the river, are covered with leaf "litter" and have plenty of plant growth. The South American waters are described as three types: clear water, white water, and black water.

  • Clear Water
    These are soft waters with the pH levels being acid to neutral. This encompasses many of the rivers that enter the Amazon from the south.
  • White Water
    White waters have a cloudy yellowish coloration due to suspended sediments in the water. They are soft waters with the pH levels being acid to neutral, encompassing waters found in the upper reaches of the Amazon.
  • Black Water
    The Amazon black waters are clear but deeply stained to a dark brown color caused by decaying vegetation of fallen trees and branches. This is very acidic soft water with the some pH levels being as low as 4.0.

Types of Cichlids

  South American Cichlids can be grouped into Large American Cichlids, Dwarf American Cichlids, and other types of cichlids like the Angelfish, discus, and hybrids. Here's a quick overview of each group, but for more in-depth information click on each group title.

  • Angelfish, Discus, and Hybrid Cichlids
       Some favorite South American cichlids include the Angelfish and Discus. These favorites, along with the hybrids like the Blood Parrot Cichlid and Flowerhorn Cichlid, have some of the most unique body shapes and pretty coloring. They sport a variety of beautiful color patterns so make great show specimens. With the exception of the Flowerhorn, they generally tend to be more peaceful and amiable.
     
  • Large American Cichlids
       The large American cichlids are just that, large. Because of that a 75 gallon aquarium is the standard suggested size for these fish. They make great specimens for an awesome show tank. Besides being large they are favored for their behaviors and temperaments. They often get to know their keeper and become extremely personable pets.
     
  • Dwarf American Cichlids
       Their are a number of small cichlids that only grow to about 4" (10 cm) or so, and many can be happy in a smaller 20 gallon aquarium. They are the American Dwarf Cichlids or New World Dwarf Cichlids. They have pretty color patterns and there are a number of color morphs in many species. However, they do tend to be shy and can be delicate, so are recommended for a more experienced aquarist.

South American Cichlid Aquariums

   General tank considerations for Central and South American cichlids are the same as for most types of fish. Ultimately the adult size of the fish will determine how big an aquarium they will need. A 75 gallon aquarium is recommend for most large American cichlids, and 20 gallons is the very minimum for most other cichlids, even the smallest species.

   There are several things to think about before you get your cichlid tank. The following considerations will help you determine size as well as decor:

  • What you are going to use the tank for helps determine the size, will it be a community tank or used for a breeding tank. A 20-gallon tank might be fine for a breeding pair of dwarf cichlids, but nothing smaller than 50 gallons (190 l) should be used for a community, and often much larger depending on the species. The largest of the South American cichlids, like the Peacock Bass, will need nothing less than 240 gallons.
     
  • Aggression level is another important consideration in a cichlid tank. The cichlid community tank will need plenty of rockwork to provide places of refuge for fish to dart into to escape an aggressor. Be careful with rock placement, the rocks should be set on the bottom of the aquarium with gravel around them to prevent the fish from digging gravel out from under rocks and causing them to topple. You can glue large rocks together to help avoid a cave in from cichlids excavating, using an aquarium silicone.
     
  • The types of cichlids you plan to keep can also affect the décor. Along with rockwork, aquatic plants help create a natural environment that is suitable with some species. However many types of cichlids will simply uproot them, and some even eat them.

   Once you've determined size and decor for your South American Cichlid aquarium, you'll want to determine the long term stability of your system. Provide good filtration, and water movement, using either an external filter or an undergravel filter. Keep in mind that if you use an undergravel filter, you will have to keep an eye on it as many cichlids will constantly be excavating and moving the gravel. This can expose the filter plate, reducing its efficiency.

   The temperature of South American Cichlid aquariums will depend on the species; but a general guides is a temperature range of 76 - 83° F (24 - 27° degrees C) and a pH range of 6.0-7.5. Some also do well a small amount of aquarium salt in the water. Moderate lighting is fine for most species, but a more intense lighting will be necessary for plant growth.

Cichlid Care and Feeding

   Changing water on a regular basis is one of the most important tasks. This is dependent on how many fish as well as the type of fish you are keeping, some are much messier than others producing a heavier bioload. A standard water change is 25% per week, or 33% every two weeks. If you have an overstocked aquarium, 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) of fish per gallon, than 40-60% may be needed.

   Most of the Central American and South American cichlids are opportunistic carnivores or piscivores (fish eaters) eating insect larvae, worms, and fishes in the wild.. Some also feed on mulluscs, plankton, and plant matter. They can be fed live foods, frozen and prepared foods, algae, flake and pelleted foods. Feed 2 to 3 times a day in smaller amounts instead of a large quantity once a day. This will keep the water quality higher over a longer time. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods.

Fish Diseases

   Central American cichlids and South American cichlids are susceptible to the same diseases that affect most aquarium freshwater fish. These include fungal infections, bacterial infections like fin and tail rot, and parasitic infections like ich.

   One disease often seen in some of the larger cichlids, especially in Oscars, is Head and Lateral Line Disease, also known as Hole-in-the-Head Disease. It begins as small pits on the head and face, usually just above the eye. If untreated, these turn into large cavities and then the disease progresses along the lateral line.

   Hole-in-the-Head disease is attributed to a nutritional deficiency of one or more of: Vitamin C, Vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus. Though its cause is not definitively determined, it is thought to be caused by a poor diet or lack of variety, lack of partial water changes, or over filtration with chemical media such as activated carbon.

   See Fish Diseases for information and treatment of diseases.

Breeding Cichlids

  Cichlids are some of the most intriguing fish to propagate. All cichlids are territorial at breeding time and will defend their territory fiercely. Their pre-spawning activities involve elaborate rituals of courtship, which include recognition signs such as color exhibition. Many of the cichlids are mouthbrooders, but there are also substrate spawners. The mouthbrooders incubate their fertilized eggs within their oral cavity. Substrate spawners have the fertilized eggs develop on outside surfaces.

   Not only will many cichlids breed in captivity, but also they provide parental protection for their eggs and young. They defend their eggs from being eaten by other fish and they provide care for them. They will fan the eggs to keep them aerated and even pick out those that don't look right to keep infection (fungal and bacterial) from spreading to other eggs.

   Then once the fry hatch and are free swimming, the parents keep them herded in tight groups to protect them from potential predators. Some cichlids even help in feeding, chewing up foods and spitting it out in clouds for the young to consume, and even fanning the substrate to stir up food particles for their young. In some species the females secrete a special slime that provides a sort of "milk" or supplementary food as a first food for their newly hatched offspring.

   See Breeding Freshwater Fish for a description of the different ways they breed.

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