African Cichlids run the gamut! These fish are simply beautiful, active and incredibly unique in both shape and behavior!

The African cichlids contain some of the most colorful of all freshwater fishes. The cichlids are an enormous family of fish and they offer the widest variety of body shapes and behaviors of all freshwater fishes.

This wonderful group is further complimented by their remarkable behavior, it is highly complex yet ritualistic. They are very active and many can be very personable, readily greeting their keepers and begging for food. These are the characteristics that make cichlids a favorite attraction for many hobbyists.

The African Cichlids seen in the hobby have a mix of fascinating characteristics and are a delight to keep. There are many colorful cichlids like the popular varieties of Peacock Cichlids. Others are highly prized for their unique habitat or behavioral characteristics. These can be seen in the goby cichlids, shelldwellers, featherfins, and popular Tropheus genus, to name a few.

Most of the favorite fish are moderate in size and very well suited to home aquariums. Some also reach an impressive size and are great specimens for a large show tank. Only a few are not really suitable for the home aquarium due to size.

African cichlids take the prize for the largest and smallest cichlids in the world! The largest recorded cichlid is the Boulengerochromis microlepis which reaches up to 36″ (90 cm) in length. In contrast there is the Nanochromis transvestitusus, which is the smallest known cichlid and barely reaches over an inch in length!

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

Cichlid Evolution

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.

With many different shapes, cichlids can range from the disk-like forms of the popular South American cichlids, the Angelfish and Discus, to the cylindrical bodied forms of the sporty African cichlids. They are very active and intriguing freshwater fish.

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.

Most of the cichlids of east Africa come from lakes that formed when two great valleys filled with water millions of years ago, but never connected. These are known as the African Rift Lakes. The rift lake cichlids from Africa have become the most popular of freshwater fish since the early 1980’s.

The dominant African Cichlids evolved to contain hundreds of endemic species. African Cichlids are conservatively estimated at about 1300 species. It is estimated Lake Malawi has over 800 species, with about 300 of them currently described. Lake Tanganyika has almost 250 species.

African Cichlid Habitat

The two great lakes in east Africa best known to the hobbyist are Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. Another familiar great lake of Africa is Lake Victoria. It is also very large but is not a rift lake; rather it is a shallower saucer-shaped lake that lies between the two rift lake valleys. There are also a number of others including Lake Edward, Lake Kivu, Lake Albert, and Lake Rudolf along with a number smaller lakes and ponds.

The cichlids of these great lakes are renown for their diversity and beauty, and because they are unique. They are principally endemic to these lakes, with most found only in their respective lake and nowhere else.

As the cichlid species evolved, they successfully exploited every conceivable way of life in the lakes, inhabiting rocky shores, sandy shores, open water (pelagic) regions, and deep-water regions. The simple term “African Cichlid” is anything but simple. There is a great diversity in the each of the cichlid genera and in their habitats.

  • Lake Malawi
    Lake Malawi is referred to as a rift lake, which means it is situated on a long tear in the earth’s crust from the tectonic plates moving. The streams that flow into Lake Malawi have a high mineral content. This along with and element of evaporation has resulted in alkaline water that is highly mineralized. Lake Malawi is known for its clarity and stability as far as pH and other water chemistries. It is easy to see why it is important to watch tank parameters with all Lake Malawi fish.

    There are about 300 species currently described by ichthyologists, though it is estimated there are over 800 species of cichlids from Lake Malawi.The basic types of enviromnents in Lake Malawi that the cichlids inhabit include rocky areas, sandy areas, midwater areas, or they can be a combination of two or all three of these types.
  • Lake Tanganyika
    Lake Tanyanika is referred to as an “island sea” due to its abundant life and its size. Lake Tanganyika is the second deepest lake in the world, reaching depths of 4823 feet (1470m), thus contributing to it’s very stable and oxygen rich water.

    There are almost 250 different species of cichlid in this lake, and over 150 species of other fish. This lake also has record-breaking inhabitants, the largest cichlid Boulengerochromis microlepis at 36” (90 cm) and the very small cichlid, the Ocellated Shell-dweller Lamprologus kungweensis at 1.4” (3.5 cm). The only smaller cichlid, Nanochromis transvestitusus from Lake Mai-Ndombe, rivals it as the smallest known cichlid at only 1.3″ (3.4 cm) in length.
  • Lake Victoria
    Lake Victoria is the third largest lake in Africa but unlike Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika, it is not a rift lake. It is a “younger” lake than the other two and is also much shallower.

    With the introduction and expansion of a voracious predator, the Nile perch Lates niloticus, along with human activities that are greatly accelerating biological changes to the lake, there has been widespread reduction and probably extinction of some of the cichlids.
  • West Africa and other areas
    Other types of African cichlids include those that are not found in the lake regions described above. West African cichlids are native to African rivers and streams, and live in a wide variety of habitats. There are a number of fish from West Africa and from outlying islands, including Madagascar.

Types of Cichlids

African Cichlids are grouped into Lake Malawi Cichlids, Lake Tanganyica Cichlids, and other types of cichlids like the Dwarf Cichlids, and West African Cichlids. Here’s an overview of each group, but for more in-depth information follow the linked title of each type below.

  • Lake Malawi Cichlids
    The Malawi Cichlids are some of the most colorful fishes, surpassed in brilliance only by the most superb marine tropical fishes. Many of these beautiful cichlids display bright colors, iridescents, or striking patterns.

    In his book, Lake Malawi Cichlids, author Mark Phillip Smith describes two main groups of cichlids from Lake Malawi, Haplochromines and the Tilapiines. The Tilapiines, which contain only 5 species, are further broken into 2 groups, mouthbrooders and substrate spawners. The Haplochromines group contains 99% of the fish. This group is further divided into three groups; Mbuna, Haplochromis, and Astatotilapia (which has only a single species A. calliptera in Lake Malawi).
    • Mbuna group
      The Mbuna group is described as rock-dwelling browsers. They are endemic to Lake Malawi, meaning they are only found in this particular lake. There are 12 genera of very active and aggressive personalities in this group.
      • Zebra Cichlids – Mbuna Cichlids – The dynamic rock-dwelling Mbuna Cichlids include the prominent Zebra Cichlids. Mbuna’s are attractive rock dwelling cichlids, often colored in blues with black bars and yellows. The African word “mbuna” means “rockfish”.
    • Haplochromis group
      Haplochromis group is a term loosely used to refer to cichlids from lake Malawi that are free-roaming browsers, sometimes call “haps” or “happies” in the aquarium industry.

      Whether Haplochromis is a genus or not is an ongoing debate by the experts, but the group includes the type genus (Haplochromis) plus a number of closely related genera such as the beautiful Peacock Cichlids Aulonocara, the Utaka Cichlids Copadichromis (so called by the African fishermen), and other non-mbuna’s.

      This is the largest group in the Cichlidae family, with 213 described species as of 2007. Many of this group are endemic to Lake Malawi. These fish live in more sandy areas and open waters and are generally larger than the mbuna cichlids.
      • Peacock Cichlids – This group contains about 28 species and many subspecies that are brilliantly colored in blues, reds and yellows. Peacocks are more peaceful cichlids and they should not be housed with the overactive and aggressive Mbuna cichlids.
      • Other Malawi Cichlids – These cichlids are endemic to Lake Malawi, and include the Utaka and a number of other non-mbuna cichlids. There are some smaller species that are quite colorful, but unlike the Peacocks, there are a number of species that are often more plain colored. Also many of these are quite large and not really suitable for the aquarium, so only a few are found in the hobby. Utaka Cichlids can be housed with the less aggressive Mbuna species if there is an abundance of space.
  • Lake Tanganyika Cichlids
    The cichlids of Lake Tanganyika contain many unique fish that enjoy great popularity among hobbyists. Many species are readily affordable for the average hobbyist, but Lake Tanganyika also houses some of the most expensive freshwater fish in the world. Within the vast cichlid family itself, the Lake Tanganyika cichlids also enjoy a special status due to having spawned so much specialization.

    Their vast diversity and highly developed social behavior has made them ideal subjects for behavioral researchers, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists. In his book, Lake Tanganyikan Cichlids, author Mark Phillip Smith tells us that there were twelve groups or “tribes” of cichlids defined in this lake in 1986 by Professor Max Poll. Of the twelve, eight of these groups are endemic to Lake Tanganyika.

    Many enthusiasts also concentrate solely on special groups from this lake such as the featherfins, shelldwellers, sardine cichlids, goby cichlids and the hugely varied and popular Tropheus genus.
    • Lake Tanganyika Cichlids
      A variety of other cichlids from Lake Tanganyika are unique cichlids in both body shape and in habitat, such varieties as the featherfins, the so called sand cichlids, julies, sardines, and shelldwellers.
      • Goby Cichlids – The Goby Cichlids from Lake Tanganyika live close to the shore in shallow waters. Like others in this group, these fish are generally more peaceful and a bit larger than the Zebra Cichlids
    • Tropheus Cichlids
      These are popular African cichlids that inhabit sandy areas and open waters. They are generally somewhat larger and more peaceful than the Zebra (mbuna) cichlids. The popular Tropheus species are endemic to Lake Tanganyika. They are widely distributed along the coastal fringes of the lake and have many geographic variations. Many have not yet been described.
  • Lake Victoria Cichlids – West African Cichlids and Dwarf Cichlids
    There are many wonderful African cichlids besides the highly popular species found in Lake Malawi or Lake Tanganyika. Like other African cichlids, they come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. These other cichlids include a number of fish from West Africa as well as cichlids from Lake Victoria. However many West African Cichlids are rather rare in the hobby.
    • Lake Victoria Cichlids
      There are several hundred vibrantly beautiful species of cichlids found in Lake Victoria alone, but they are comprised almost entirely of endemic species of Haplochromines along with a few Talapines.

      These cichlids have not been introduced into the hobby as intently as those from Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika, consequently they have not become well known. Unfortunately there are not many Lake Victoria cichlids available today. Only a few species, primarily those known as ‘mbipi’ a rock dwelling cichlid counterpart to Lake Malawi’s Mbuna or Zebra Cichlids, are sometimes available

      East African Cichlids include Victoria Cichlids found in lakes surrounding Lake Victoria. Others are native to African rivers and streams, and live in a wide variety of habitats.
    • Dwarf Cichlids – West Africa Cichlids
      The smaller cichlids, sometimes called West Africa Dwarf Cichlids are interesting and beautiful little fish. Some that can be found include species from these genera: Pelvicachromis, Nanochromis, Steatocranus, Benitochromis, Pelmatochromis, Thysochromis, Chromidotilapia, and Tilapia.
      African Dwarf Cichlids make fascinating aquarium inhabitants, as exemplified by the pretty and popular Kribensis or Krib Pelvicachromis pulcher.

African Cichlid Aquariums

Most of the African Cichlids available in the hobby are rock dwellers. They live among them for protection and spawns under them. The will also eat algae, insects and crustaceans off the rocks. A good number of rocks forming caves and undercroppings will help create a natural environment for your fish. Clay flowerpots can also make good caves.

African cichlids will constantly excavate gravel and rearrange it. So be careful in 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. Aquatic plants won’t fare well in this type of aquarium, as these cichlids will dig up them up and eat them.

A minimum 20-gallon (38 l) tank is a good size to start with for most species, though 30 gallons or more is desirable. 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 these fish will constantly be moving the gravel and can expose the filter plate, reducing the filters efficiency. The temperature of the aquarium should be maintained at 75-80 degrees (24-27 degrees C).

Moderate lighting is fine, but a more intense lighting will encourage algae growth. Algae is not necessary in the aquarium and you may not want to deal with, but it can be enjoyed by the fish. In their native habitat there is a natural algae cover on the shallow rocks containing bacteria, insects and crustaceans. These fish scrape the algae off, and derive some of their nutrition from it. ogether to help avoid a cave in from cichlids excavating, using an aquarium silicone.

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.

Monitoring the aquarium water to maintain a high pH (alkalinity) is very important. Lake Malawi has a pH of 7.7 to 8.7, and Lake Tanganyika can get as high as 9.3. The best range for these fish is a pH of 8.5, though they can survive in a neutral pH of 7, or even in an acid pH of 6. But as the pH lowers, it has been found that these fish are more susceptible to disease, loss of coloration, and cease to breed.

Except for the herbivorous Tilapia and Geophagus, all Cichlids are predators eating insect larvae, worms, and fishes in the wild. 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

African 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.

Another fairly common infection seen in rift lake cichlids is what is termed “Malawi bloat”, gaining its name from initially being recognized in fish from Lake Malawi. Little is really known about this disease or what causes it, but the fish literally bloats up with water, the eyes tend to pop out, the scales stand up, and it tends to loose its balance. Symptoms include a loss of appetite, swollen abdomen, rapid breathing, and thin white feces. It is not known if it is infectious or not, but when seen it is generally recommended that the aquarium should be dealt with immediately with a 1/3 water change, and treatment. Two suggested treatments are Clout and Metronidazole.

See Fish Diseases for information and treatment of diseases.

Breeding Cichlids

Under the right conditions, many of these cichlids will breed in captivity. 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 there fertilized eggs within their oral cavity. Substrate spawners have the fertilized eggs develop on outside surfaces. The males often build nests and territories are established that are fiercely defended. Most cichlids will also defend their newly hatched fry.

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