The Convict Cichlid Amatitlania nigrofasciata (previously Archocentrus nigrofasciatus and Cichlosoma nigrofasciatum), a.k.a. the Zebra Cichlid, is a hardy fish with a pugnacious attitude. Their name, Convict Cichlid, originates from the broad, dark vertical lines running down their body, making them similar in apperance to the traditional “jailbird” outfit.When mature, they reach a maximum size of about 5-6″ (13-15 cm) which makes them one of the smaller Central American cichlids.The male Convict will be larger than the female, but the females will be more colorful. There are also several color varieties being bred. The popular pseudo-albino forms are known as the Pink Convict Cichlid or White Convict Cichlid.

Convict Cichlids have a tendency towards unusually aggressive and spunky behaviors for a fish their size. For example, they are known for their tendency to attack almost any other fish in their territory, including fish up to three times their size! They are great in a tank with other aggressive fish, just make sure the other fish are not so big that they can swallow your Convict Cichlid whole.

These are an undemanding fish and very easy to care for. A sandy substrate with rocks, roots, and pieces of driftwood will make your Convict Cichlid feel at home. They enjoy plants, especially floating plants to help subdue the light. They will re-arrange your tank however, so be sure to anchor planted plants to the bottom of the tank as the Convict Cichlid sometimes likes to remove the gravel and substrate keeping the plant anchored to the bottom. Convict Cichlids prefer a warm tank and can tolerant a wide range of pH, pretty much anywhere from 6.0 to 8.0, though it needs to be kept reasonably consistent.

One of their most notable characteristics is that they are one of the easiest fish to breed and generally don’t even require aid from the aquarist. Due to the extreme ease of breeding, these fish have been called the ‘rabbits of the fish world’. They have the reputation of “spawning in the bag on the way home from the fish store”. This statement is a bit of a stretch, but not far from reality.

Although they are small, beautiful, and easy to keep and breed, the Convict Cichlid is also very aggressive. Fishkeepers, especially begginners, should therefore be well informed when choosing this fish as a pet and be mindful of their tendencies and particulars when deciding on tankmates and aquarium setup.

Black Convict Cichlid Life Cycle – They All Grow Up

Scientific Classification


Convict Cichlid – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Beginner
Aquarium Hardiness:Very hardy
Minimum Tank Size:20 gal (76 L)
Size of fish – inches6.0 inches (15.24 cm)
Temperature:74.0 to 82.0° F (23.3 to 27.8&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Convict Cichlid Amatitlania nigrofasciata (previously Archocentrus nigrofasciatus and Cichlosoma nigrofasciatum) was described by G{uuml}nther in 1867. They are found in Central America on the Pacific slope from Costa Rica to Guatemala and on the Atlantic slope from Honduras to Panama. These fish have been introduced to many areas in the United States by fish owners and local American populations are growing. Another common name for this fish is the Zebra Cichlid. The pseudo-albino variety is known as the Pink Convict Cichlid or White Convict Cichlid. This species is known to cross breed with the Nicaragua CichlidHypsophrys nicaraguensis and the crosses are fertile to at least the 4th generation.The species is not listed on the IUCN Red List.

Until the mid 1980’s there were some 100+ species that were described under the genus Cichlasoma. But around this time it was determined that they no longer fit in that genus and were moved into their own various genera. Many were left orphaned and are now temporarily designated as “Cichlasoma” (with quotation marks) until the scientific community decides what genus to place them in. This allows only true Cichlasoma to remain in this ‘corrected’ genus, currently comprised of 12 species.

The rivers they inhabit are the Tarcoles, Aguan River, and Guarumo River. They like waters that are flowing from smaller streams to larger fast flowing rivers. They dwell among the shallow rocky areas where they hide in cracks and crevices, feeding on worms, insects, fish, crustaceans and plants. They can also be found in warm pools of springs. These fish are almost never found in open waters and prefer areas with some sort of coverage.

  • Scientific Name: Archocentrus nigrofasciatus
  • Social Grouping: Pairs
  • IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed


The Convict Cichlid has a stocky oval disk shape, with pointed anal and dorsal fins. This is one of the smaller Central American cichlids, with the males only reaching 5 – 6″ (13 -15 cm) in length and females a bit less at 3 – 4″ (8 -10 cm). They are also very deep bodied so it’s easy to underestimate their actual size. They have a general life span of 8 – 10 years, though there have been reports of individuals living up to 20 years.

This cichlid has a blue-gray, cream, or blue-lavendar base on the body with 8 to 9 dark vertically running bands. They have a break in the vertical bands in the area behind their head, almost forming a “U” shape. The fins are clearish to light yellow.

With in-line breeding there are now several color varieties. The Pink Convict Cichlid or White Convict Cichlid are pseudo-albino varieties that are pink and cream, and lack the characteristic vertical bars. The coloring of the male is monotone while the female will have an orangish patch on the stomach.

All cichlids, along with some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish, share a common trait of a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth located 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 of fish – inches: 6.0 inches (15.24 cm) – Male Convict Cichlids grow to a length of 5 – 6″ (13 -15 cm), with females reaching 3 – 4″ (8 -10 cm).
  • Lifespan: 10 years

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Convict is a very easy fish for a beginner fish keeper to keep and breed. However, these fish are very aggressive and not a good choice for a community tank unless in a very large tank with other robust Central American Cichlids. They are best for beginners to keep in a species only tank.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner

Foods and Feeding

The Convict Cichlid is an omnivoreand a very undemanding eater. It will readily eat a wide variety of foods including: foods manufactured for omnivorous cichlids, vegetable based foods with spirulina, blanched lettuce or other veggies, beef heart and worms. Feed 2 to 5 small pinches of food 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.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day

Aquarium Care

TheConvict Cichlids are fairly easy to care for provided their water is kept clean. Aquariums are closed systems and regardless of size all need some maintenance. With home aquariums the nitrate and phosphates build up over time and the water hardness increases due to evaporation. Because these fish are very sensitive to pollutants and pH instabilty, so it is important that at least 15- 20% of the tank water is replaced bi-weekly, especially if the tank is densely stocked. When doing the water changes always use a gravel cleaner to ensure all of the decomposing organic matter that has built up is removed. The majority of of problems that occur with tropical fish tanks usually come down to one cause: decomposing organic matter!

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly – 15-20%

Aquarium Setup

Convict Cichlids do best when they are allowed plenty of space and a large aquarium. A pair of juveniles can do well in a tank as small as 20 gallons. However, it is recommended that once they become fully grown that they be moved to a tank of around 50 gallons or more. They prefer to have good water movement and efficient filtration. They like a warm tank and can tolerant a wide range of pH, pretty much anywhere from 6.0 to 8.0, though it needs to be kept reasonably consistent.

This cichlid has some salt tolerance and can be kept in slightly brackish water conditions. However it is not suited to a full brackish water tank. It can tolerate a salinity that is about 10% of normal a saltwater tank, a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.

Provide a sandy substrate with rocks, roots, and pieces of driftwood. They also enjoy plants, especially floating plants to help subdue the light. They will re-arrange the aquarium so make sure substrate plants are anchored down. Normal aquarium lighting works fine if there are floating plants, and low to moderate lighting if no plants.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gal (76 L) – 20 gallons is fine for a pair of smaller fish, but fully grown fish should be kept in tanks of at least 50 gallons or more.
  • Substrate Type: Sand
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 74.0 to 82.0° F (23.3 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Range ph: 6.0-8.0
  • Hardness Range: 6 – 8 dGH
  • Brackish: Sometimes – Tolerate low salinity of 10% of a normal saltwater tank, a specific gravity of 1.0002
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: All

Social Behaviors

The Convict Cichlid is an aggressive cichlid that can only be kept with similarily sized or larger fish that have the same temperament. The Blue Acara, Rainbow Cichlid, Jack Dempsey, and Green Terror would make suitable tank mates in part because they are similarily aggressive and won’t be terrorized to death by the Convict Cichlid. Do not house this fish with fish that are peaceful, semi-aggressive, or large enough to swallow the Convict Cichlid whole. Once they are mating they will kill anything in the tank if they can. They have been known to beat up large plecostomus and Oscars 3 times larger than themselves!

This fish can be kept alone, resulting in a slightly skittish and more mellow fish, or as a male and female pair. They are generally aggressive toward those of the same species especially when mating.

  • Temperament: Aggressive – Very aggressive when breeding.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: No – They can tolerate members of their own species as long as they are in a large enough aquarium and not spawning.
    • Peaceful fish (): Threat
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Aggressive (): Monitor – These fish are known to attack fish 3 times their size.
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Monitor
    • Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
    • Plants: Monitor – As long as plants are anchored firmly they are fine.

Sexual differences

Males are larger with a steeper forehead, but not as vibrantly colored as the females. Like most male cichlids, these males develop longer, pointed anal and dorsal fins as they get older as well as acquiring a vestigal fatty lump on the forehead. The females have orange on their lower bodies and dorsal fins.

Breeding / Reproduction

Convict Cichlids are cave spawners. They will readily breed in captivity and are one of the best cichlid parents around. One author’s very descriptive remark is that to breed them you “just add fish and water”. A group of juveniles will result in a pair being formed, leaving the remaining fish cowering in the corner if the tank is small.

The pair will shake their heads at each other in a little pre-spawning dance. The male will position himself vertically and change to darker, more vivid shades of color. The female will do the same dance and flare up. They will then clean an area and dig a depression in the substrate around a rock, flower pot, or cave. The female will lay about 20-40 eggs on the inside top of the cave or flowerpot and the male will follow her up and fertilize them. This will continue until there are 100-300 eggs, depending on the maturity of the female. She will fan the eggs while the male keeps an eye on the nest and patrols the outside.

Depending on temperature and pH, the young hatch in about 48 to 72 hours. Within another 6-8 days they are free swimming and can be fed powdered (crushed) flake, daphnia, baby brine shrimp, and/or pellet food for omnivorous cichlids. They can be advanced to full flake at about 3 weeks old. The female helps out by stirring up the sand with her belly to expose food that has settled at the bottom, or by chewing up food that is too large and spitting it into the water for the young to eat. The parents also secrete a mucus like substance on their bodies that is a sort of supplementary food for the fry.

The parents defend their babies at all cost and will push tank mates to the other side of the tank. If they feel their young are threatened, they may actually bury them in the sand. They will retrieve any fry that stray from the nest and the male will viciously guard them to the death.

You can remove the fry after a few weeks if you plan to raise them, allowing the breeding process to start again. If you do not remove them the female sometimes will eat the young. This will result in the male attacking the female to the point where you may have to remove her or put in a divider. The young are ready to breed within a year. See more about cichlid breeding in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

They are subject to infections as well as other diseases that ail all freshwater fish. 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. A copper test also can be used to keep the proper levels. You can also combine increasing the temperature with an Ich medication treatment. Intestinal disease can be treated with metronidazol.

As with most fish the Convict Cichlid is prone to skin flukes and other parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), fungal infections, and bacterial infections. It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about freshwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.


The Convict Cichlid, as well as the Pink Convict Cichlid, is readily available both in fish stores and online. They tend to be very moderately priced, with larger specimens being more expensive than smaller ones.



 Archocentrus nigrofasciatus female (Image Credit: S. Olkowicz, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic)