Nicaragua Cichlid

Spilotum, Moga, Butterfly Cichlid, Macaw Cichlid

Family: Cichlidae Nicaragua Cichlid, Hypsophrys nicaraguensis pair, Spilotum, Moga, Butterfly Cichlid, Macaw CichlidNicaragua Cichlids (breeding pair)Hypsophrys nicaraguensisPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy David Brough
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I have a 120gal cichlid tank that has been set up for about 6 months now. I have a male Nicaragua Cichlid who is about 7in long and female Salvini who is about 4in... (more)  Jordan Fairbanks

With its brilliant array of colors, the Nicaragua Cichlid is possibly the most beautiful of the Central American cichlids!

The Nicaragua Cichlid Hypsophrys nicaraguensis (previously Cichlasoma nicaraguense) is really a spectacular looking fish. The males tend to be larger than the females, but it is the females that display the most dazzling colors. The coloring of these fish depends upon their place of origin in the wild, but arguably the most striking composition includes a brilliant gold body, a bright blue and emerald coloring on the head, purple accents under and around the pectoral fins, and blue along the edges of the dorsal and anal fins.

Interestingly, though the Nicaruagua Cichlid is known as one of the most dramatically colored fish as an adult, as a juvenile they present a rather drab, brown aesthetic. Due in part to this lack of interesting coloring for much of their lives these fish can often be hard to find and are not a common inhabitant of the aquarium hobby. But when the hobbyist is able to obtain them they offer an unsurpassed spectacle in the aquarium.

Other popular names for this fish include Spilotum, Nicaraguense, Moga, and Nickie. In addition, the brilliant array of its colors has prompted observers to liken it to other beauties of nature, inspiring the common names Butterfly Cichlid and Macaw Cichlid. Some sources also call it the Parrot Cichlid, but be careful when identifying this fish by this name as the name 'Parrot Cichlid' is also much better known as belonging to another cichlid, Hoplarchus psittacus

This is a great fish for both beginning fish keepers and advance aquarists alike. Like all cichlids it is territorial and has the capacity to be aggressive. However, it tends to only be a moderately aggressive fish and is more peaceful and reserved than many similarly sized Central American cichlids. It can be kept with other smaller cichlids, but avoid the more aggressive types like the Texas Cichlid or the Red Devil.

Nicaragua Cichlids love to have places to hide and territories to defend, so be sure to decorate their tank with plenty of rock caves, flowerpots, and other such structures, and provide them with a sandy substrate to dig in. Since they are large fish and enjoy digging in the substrate, make sure all tank decorations are firmly grounded on the glass bottom of the tank to prevent toppling. They are fairly safe with live plants, but might have a tendency to nibble and bite at them, especially during spawning, so keep an eye on any live plants in their tank. 

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Hypsophrys
  • Species: nicaraguensis
My New Nicaraguan Cichlid

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Video of a fiesty and young Nicaragua Cichlid!

What looks like a young and probably female Nicaragua Cichlids seems to have been recently introduced to a tank. Notice the dazzling color on the fish, especially near the head, and how excited it is to be home!

Nicaragua Cichlid - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Size of fish - inches: 9.8 inches (24.99 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L)
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Temperature: 74.0 to 80.0° F (23.3 to 26.7° C)
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Nicaragua Cichlid Hypsophrys nicaraguensis (previously Cichlasoma nicaraguense) was described by Gynther in 1864. They are found in Central America along the Atlantic slope; from the San Juan drainage, including Lake Nicaragua, in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to the Matina River drainage in Costa Rica. The species is not listed on the IUCN Red List. This species is known to cross breed with the Convict Cichlid Amatitlania nigrofasciata and the crosses are fertile to at least the 4th generation.

They are found in lakes and rivers with slow to moderate currents. When young they will eat aquatic insects, but as adults they feed on bottom detritus, seeds, and leaves along with snails and other mollusks.

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 so were moved into their own various genera. Many were left orphaned and are now 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.

  • Scientific Name: Hypsophrys nicaraguensis
  • Social Grouping: Groups
  • IUCN Red List: NE - Not Evaluated or not listed


The body of the Nicaragua Cichlid is stocky and compact with an extremely curved head that positions the mouth on the bottom. This is fairly large Central American cichlid reaching up to almost 10 inches (25 cm) in length. They have a life span of 10 - 15 years with proper care.

The body is gold to copper colored with an iridescent greenish blue head. There is a dark line running through the middle of the body with a large black blotch in the center. There are numerous dark spots on the fins and the dorsal fin has a red edge. The scales on the male will have dark edges giving it an overall reticulated appearance.

In addition to their base coloring, this fish has several color variations depending upon the geographic location it originates from and  the females are the more brightly colored. Wild caught specimens are also more strikingly colored than those that are captive bred.

  • Size of fish - inches: 9.8 inches (24.99 cm)
  • Lifespan: 15 years

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Nicaragua Cichlid is a large fish but is also relatively peaceful.These fish are fairly easy to care for with the right equipment and maintance schedule but will benefit from an experienced owner. A beginner who is adequately prepared to provide a large tank, perform diligent maintenance, and is properly informed concerning feeding and tankmates will be able to care for these fish. 

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

Foods and Feeding

The Nicaragua Cichlid is an omnivore and in nature they feed on all kinds of plant seeds, leaves, and bottom detritus along with snails and other mollusks. In the aquarium they will generally eat all kinds of live, fresh, and flake foods. To keep a good balance give them a high quality flake food or pellet everyday. Supplement the diet with treats of brine shrimp (either live or frozen), blood worms, snails, earthworms vegetables, and mussels. They also enjoy thinly sliced blanched zucchini, and they will occasionally eat soft leaved plants during spawning.

If you find your fish enjoys warm blooded animal meats (e.g. poultry, beef hearts, etc), be sure to only feed them as an occasional treat. These types of foods contain high amounts of proteins and fats which are not normally found in a cichlid's diet and can cause dangerous digestive blockages and ruptures. 

  • 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

Nicaragua 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 pollitants and pH instabilty, so it is important that at least 20- 25% of the tank water should be replaced weekly, especially if the tank is densely stocked. When doing the water changes always use a gravel cleaner to make sure 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: Weekly

Aquarium Setup

A minimum 50 gallon aquarium is suggested for a single fish, though a larger tank would be needed if keeping several. They need good water movement along with strong and efficient filtration. Provide a bottom of fine sand and plenty of hiding places among rocks, pieces of slate, and wood. The Nicaragua Cichlid is a pit spawner and digs extensively so aquarium decorations should be firmly grounded. Plants can be included, but be sure they are hardy and well rooted. The Nicaragua Cichlid will occasionally eat soft leaved plants during spawning, so keep an eye on them during this time. 

  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L)
  • Substrate Type: Sand
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate - normal lighting
  • Temperature: 74.0 to 80.0° F (23.3 to 26.7° C)
  • Breeding Temperature: 79.0° F
  • Range ph: 6.5-7.5
  • Hardness Range: 8 - 15 dGH
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: All

Social Behaviors

The Nicaragua Cichlid can be territorial and aggressive though is generally much more gentle than many other cichlids their size. They are not a general community fish and should only be kept in a species tank or with other cichlids. They can be kept with smaller cichlids, just not more aggressive cichlids. They can be kept in mated pairs, but it is advisable to buy a group of juveniles and raise them together, allowing them to pair off naturally, rather than attempting to introduce a mature male to a mature female.  They will burrow and dig up plants and are known to eat leafy plants when they are spawning. 

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species - conspecifics: Yes
    • Peaceful fish (): Threat
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Monitor
    • Slow Swimmers & Eaters (): Monitor
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat - is aggressive
    • Plants: Monitor - This fish tends to bite at and eat leafy plants during spawning, but be sure to keep an eye on your plants at all times to see if your fish has developed a taste for them!

Sex: Sexual differences

The male is larger and has a pointed dorsal fin. In addition, a captive kept male will develop a permenant hump, though this hump is only temporary on a wild specimen and only presents during spawning. The female will be slightly smaller than the male and will generally display more brilliant colors. 

Breeding / Reproduction

The Nicaragua Cichlid has been successfully bred in captivity. They are egg layers. They spawn in pits but should be treated as a monogamist cave spawner and provided a number of hiding places and caves. They are a pit-spawning species. Their eggs are non-adhesive and will lay in the pit in clusters. These cichlids differ from other cave spawning cichlid species whose eggs will adhere to the top or sides of caves. It is said that this fish has been successfully cross-bred with the Convict Cichlid Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, creating a fertile hybrid offspring. About half of the eggs from this crossing are adhesive and half are not.

The spawn consists of eggs that are transparent, about 1/16th of an inch (2 mm) in size, and lay on the ground in a loose conglomeration. With temperatures of 79° F (26° C), the larvae hatch after about 3 days. After another 4-5 days the young become free swimming and can be nourished with Artemia nauplii. The parents will assume a set of divided duties with the male providing guard and defense services and the female caring for the eggs and the young. See a general description of how cichlids breed in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Moderate

Fish Diseases

They are subject to infections as well as other diseases that affect ail freshwater fish, especially if the water is of poor quality and low oxygenation. 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.

Hard water will contribute to the notorious Head and Lateral Line Erosion (HLLE) or 'Hole-in-the-Head' disease, an ailment that large cichlids are prone to. Use driftwood to help pull the pH down if you have very hard water. Intestinal disease can be treated with metronidazol.

As with most fish the Nicaraguan Cichlids are 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 Nicaragua Cichlid or Spilotum is occasionally available both online and in fish stores, and is usually not very expensive.


Author: David Brough CFS, Clarice Brough CFS
Lastest Animal Stories on Nicaragua Cichlid

Jordan Fairbanks - 2012-03-04
I have a 120gal cichlid tank that has been set up for about 6 months now. I have a male Nicaragua Cichlid who is about 7in long and female Salvini who is about 4in long and they had babys. Most of my other fish ate them before we could gather them and put them in a safer tank. I was wondering if anyone knew what kind of hybrid fish this is or what they would look like grown. I have been wanting to know the best way to successfully breed. Thank you!!!

  • Tricia Tilley - 2014-05-31
    Hi I have a 3 ft tank with only my nics in when courting. I found the male and females to be very lovely to watch. When the female has laid eggs and has her babies both parents are brilliant with their fry. I am proud to have 200 fry in my tank from these lovely fish. The female is green and gold with black spots and the male also has some green on his face but he is very golden too. Also with a nice play spot. So I'm guessing the perfect pair. I have a cave in my tank with plants around that they like to nibble on. The cave is under the sand so not to be noticed. Only had these cichlids 4 months and now I know they are a perfect pair. Thanks for reading. Mummy and daddy become very aggressive over their young if there are other fish in the tank. We had an algae eater but they didn't like it going near their cave..
Frankie - 2012-03-21

Been a fish-keeper most of my life and ive had 'Nics' for several years. The pair I have are large. They have bred a few times (not very often though). Recently, I've noticed that the female has grown a huge lump on her forehead (breeding time). However, she has never shown this trait during breeding before. Now the male has grown a small lump on his head too, but additionally, he has grown a massive face plate quite similar to an Orangutan haha! This has made him look a bit strange as he doesn't have the typical face of a Nic now. Has anyone else observed this before?

  • Jeremy Roche - 2012-10-26
    This is normally seen in wild caught variety of cichlids during breeding.  Not normal with nics though.  maybe it has something else bred with it?
  • Adam - 2012-11-14
    I've seen other posts and stuff from people that said this happens with nics...
  • Adam - 2012-11-14
    Saw it a bit on my male once but not the female
Dawn Huntley - 2004-12-23
I have a young pair in a tank with two young albino oscars and they do well (so far) together. The male is a little more aggressive than the female and has the spot that turns to the lateral line with mood. They are quite attractive!

ryan - 2013-01-14
I just got 2 big cichlids from the adoption tank at my work (petco). The bigger one is a blue acara. And the other one I had no idea, but it was amazingly beautiful. I went to a local pet store where they have a freshwater fish atlas and looked my mystery cichlid up. I found out it was a spilotum or nickie or macaw lol ... I'm pretty sure it's a girl from what I've read. I feel very lucky to have rescued both her and the big blue acara. They are gorgeous. The only thing is I have small gravel and the nic keeps moving all the rocks and she is starting to scratch her head up pretty good. So I'm gonna switch to sand next water change. I have 6 baby convicts too. I just found out they can cross breed with the nic .... very interesting.