Look no further than the Frontosa Cichlid for a majestic and commanding presence in your aquarium!
The Frontosa Cichlid Cyphotilapia frontosa (originally Paratilapia frontosa) is a very handsome fish and held in the highest regard by cichlid keepers. With its large size and very pronounced coloration it immediately draws attention and dominates an aquarium display. Some can reach a length of up to 14 inches (35 cm) or more. They have rich bold pattern of 6 or 7 broad black bands on a white or blue background, sometimes with nice gold accents in the dorsal fin. This is truly a regal beauty and an awesome fish for a large show aquarium.
This species is also commonly known as the Humphead Cichlid. Both the male and female have the same attractive coloration and will develop a cranial hump, the large knob on its head, but that is not seen in juveniles. A mature male will become larger in size and develop longer fins, but these fish are challenging to sex as they are slow to grow. It can take three to four years before they reach breeding age.
These cichlids are deep water fish that come from Lake Tanganyika, Africa. Rather than being cave dwellers like many rock dwelling rift lake cichlids, they live in large colonies along the sloping lake bottom. They are found in many locations around the lake but are always at depths anywhere from 35 to 170 feet (10.7 – 50 m) or more. This makes them a difficult fish to collect, which made them quite rare and expensive for many years. Now however many are bred in captivity, so they are readily available and at a modest cost.
There are several different color variants, depending on the region of the lake they come from. Localities with distinctive varieties include Kigoma, Bulu Point, Mpimbwe, Samazi, Kasanga, Chaitika, Kapampa, Kavala, and Zaire. The most regularly seen variety is the Burundi Six-stripe Frontosa. It has a high body, nice banding, and a good amount of blue. Due to long time captive breeding this variety is the most readily available. However the most colorful variety is the Zaire Blue Frontosa. It has the most blue, sometimes looking almost purple. Due to the difficulties in collection not all of these variants are exported, and some are only infrequently exported.
This genus was once thought to be monotypic with just one species. However as recently as 2003, the Southern Frontosa or Blue Frontosa Cyphotilapia gibberosa was identified and described as its own species. The Cyphotilapia genus is still under investigation, so some of the other variants may eventually turn out to be their own species as well.
Frontosa Cichlids are moderate to easy to care for, but they do need a good sized tank and regular maintenance. They make a great fish for intermediate and experienced aquarists. They are not overly aggressive and are quite gregarious, so they can be kept in a community environment. A minimum group needs to be at least one male with three females, but they are best kept in groups of 8 to 12 individuals in a very large aquarium with plenty of swimming space. A single fish could be kept a tank that is at least 48″ in length and about 70 gallons, but as a group they need a minimum of 125 gallons or more. A 200 gallon aquarium is recommended for long term care. Provide a sandy bottom and some rock structures creating fissures for them to hide in. Though plants are not essential, they do not burrow and will not harm them.
This cichlid is a gently tolerant community fish and doesn’t look for trouble, but it will defend a territory once it has established one. Even though they are quite peaceful beware of keeping smaller fish in your aquarium. The Frontosa will stealthily snatch up a small fishy snack if it is available. Ironically they themselves are a snack in their native lands, where they are considered a delicacy.
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: Cyphotilapia
- Species: frontosa
- Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
- Size of fish – inches: 13.8 inches (35.00 cm)
- Minimum Tank Size: 70 gal (265 L)
- Temperament: Semi-aggressive
- Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
- Temperature: 74.0 to 79.0° F (23.3 to 26.1° C)
- My Aquarium – Enter your aquarium to see if this fish is compatible!
Habitat: Distribution / Background
The Frontosa Cichlid Cyphotilapia frontosa (originally Paratilapia frontosa) was described by Boulenger in 1906, They are endemic to Lake Tanganyika, Africa. This species is listed on the IUCN Red List as Lease Concern (LC). Although it is endemic to Lake Malawi, it is widespread throughout the lake and has no recognized threats at present.
At one time this genus was thought to be monotypic, with a number of regional variants. But there has been considerable taxonomic revision and here are now at least 2 species and several more nominal species under investigation. The Southern Frontosa or Blue Frontosa Cyphotilapia gibberosa was identified and described as its own species by Takahashi and Nakaya as recently as 2003.
The Cyphotilapia genus, previously included in the Tropheini tribe, was recently moved to the Cyphotilapiini tribe as they are very distinct in both habitat and diet. The Tropheini tribe are primarily herbivorous and bound to shallow waters. But these are deep water cichlids inhabiting waters as deep as 350 feet (107 m) and their diet consists of fish. The Cyphotilapiini tribe contains only this one small genus. They are found throughout Lake Tanganyika, but with Cyphotilapia frontosa being roughly confined to the northern half of the lake and Cyphotilapia gibberosa being roughly confined to the southern half. They are maternal mouthbrooders.
Another common name they are known by is Humphead Cichlid. Geographic variants are named for the region of the lake they come from and/or their coloring. Some of these include the Burundi Six-stripe Frontosa, Zaire Blue Frontosa, Tanzanian Six-stripe Frontosa, Tanzanian Seven-stripe Frontosa, Zambian Blue Frontosa or Blue Face Frontosa, Kipili Frontosa, Samazi Frontosa, Kigoma Frontosa or Seven Bar Frontosa, and the Kavalla Frontosa.
These cichlids live off shore on the sloping lake bottom. They live in groups at depths of 35 to 170 feet (10.7 – 50 m) or more, with some authors saying they can be as deep as 350 feet (107 m). They dwell among the rocks feeding on fish, snails, and mussels.
- Scientific Name: Cyphotilapia frontosa
- Social Grouping: Groups
- IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern
The Frontosa Cichlid is a heavy bodied fish with large rounded heads and a wide underslung mouth. In the aquarium males reach up to about 12 inches (30 cm) in length, with females usually being smaller, reaching about 10 inches (25.4 cm). In the wild they attain lengths of about 14 inches (35 cm), with some resources saying they can reach up to 16 inches (40.6 cm). Both the male and the female will develop the cranial hump on the forehead but the male hump may be larger and more pronounced. The nuchal hump is absent on juveniles. This fish may live 25 years or more with proper care.
This cichlid has six or seven broad black stripes on a white background. The fins are white or light blue in color. Variations of this fish found in the more southern parts of Lake Tanganyika were described by Takahashi and Nakaya in 2003 as Cyphotilapia gibberosa. This group is accepted as a new species in the scientific community. They are very similar to the Frontosa Cichlid Cyphotilapia frontosa, but all are noted for having six dark stripes rather than seven. However there is one variant of the original Frontosa Cichlid from the northern area that also has six stripes.
Juvenile Photo © Animal-World:
Courtesy Frank Schneidewind
Some of the geographic variants include:
- Burundi Six-stripe Frontosa
This variety has a very high body and a large nuchal hump. It has nice banding and although they are not the variety with the most blue, they do have good amount. Inbreeding has resulted in specimens that don’t have the high bodies.
- Zaire Blue Frontosa
This variety is named for the earlier name of the Congo Republic, which was Zaire. This group is has the most blue body, with some even appearing purple, and the band on the head runs between the eyes and down the gill plate. Variations can be solid blue or not, and some will have blue dots on some of the bands.
- Tanzanian Six-stripe Frontosa
This variety is a fairly rare export to the United States. It looks the same as the Burundi Six-stripe and also has a large nuchal hump, but it the two are cross bred the offspring will result in slanted bands.
- Tanzanian Seven-stripe Frontosa or Frontosa “Kigoma”
The Frontosa “Kigoma” is a highly sought after variety. It is readily distinguished by its seventh band that is more of a patch on its face than an actual band. It also has a large nuchal hump that is blue and the dorsal fin has gold accents.
- Kipili Frontosa
The Kipili Frontosa “Tanzania” is variety that is very rarely exported. It has some blue, but not as much as other varieties.
- Zambian blue Frontosa, or Blue Face Frontosa
This variety has has nice banding with some blue on the face. The band on the head fades just above the eye.
- Samazi Frontosa
This variety has a high body, but varies in color between the male and female. The male has nice blues while the female has none or very little. They are also more difficult to breed.
- Kavalla Frontosa
This variety is extremely rare. It has six nice bands and blue accents, but can turn dark with mood. Its dorsal fin is yellow, but with a sheen of multiple colors.
- Size of fish – inches: 13.8 inches (35.00 cm) – In nature they reach almost 14″ (35 cm) in length (some resources say 16″ = 40.6 cm). They are usually smaller in the aquarum with males at about 12″ (30 cm) and females about 10″ (25.4 cm).
- Lifespan: 25 years – With proper care this species may live 25 years or more.
Fish Keeping Difficulty
This is a great fish for both the intermediate and experienced cichlid keeper. It needs a good sized aquarium and the aquarists must be willing to do frequent water changes and provide appropriate tank mates. In the proper setup it will easily adapt and readily accept prepared foods. It is one of the more peaceful cichlids that can even be kept in a community type setting with other fish of similarly size and temperament, but as it is predatory, it will eat smaller fish.
- Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
- Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate – Although they are moderately easy to care for, they require a large tank with appropriate tankmates.
Foods and Feeding
Since they are carnivorous the Frontosa Cichlid will generally eat all kinds of live foods. In the wild they feed on fish and shellfish, such as snails and molluscs. In the aquarium it is a slow feeder and will eat pellets as well as a variety of meaty foods such as feeder fish, worms and crustaceans; ie. mysis, shrimp, and krill. Frozen foods such as brine shrimp is also considered as a good protein source.
It is suggested that you do not feed live feeders fish due to possible diseases and pathogens that may be transferred to your fish. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods. Feed 2 to 5 portions of food a day in smaller amounts, instead of a large quantity once a day. This keeps the water quality higher for a longer period of time.
- Diet Type: Carnivore
- Flake Food: No
- Tablet / Pellet: Yes
- Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
- Meaty Food: All of Diet
- Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day – Offer several small feedings a day rather than a single large feeding for better water quality over time.
Do normal water changes of 10% to 20% a week, or more frequent changes depending on the nitrite/ammonia levels and stocking numbers. TheTanganyika 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 so the water tends to stay stable.
- Water Changes: Weekly – Water changes of 10-20% weekly are suggested, depending on bioload and stocking levels.
The Frontosa Cichlid is active and will swim in all areas of the aquarium. A minimum 70 gallon tank can house a single specimen, but these fish are gregarious and will really do best kept in groups of at least 4 individuals, with 8 to 12 being ideal. A minimum 125 gallon tank will be needed for a small group with a larger aquarium (200 gallons plus) being best for long term care. They need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration.
Lake Tanganyika is a very oxygen rich lake so bubblers need to be going day and night, even if there are plants. Regularly check nitrates and ph, nitrates should be no more than 25 ppm and a pH less than 7 is not tolerated. In addition keep an eye on total hardness and carbonate hardness. Avoid overfeeding and overstocking.
Lake Tanganyika is the second to largest lake in the world, thus contributing to a low fluctuation in temperature and pH. All Tanganyika cichlids need stable temperatures kept within acceptable limits and lots of oxygen to survive. Temperatures under 72° F and over 86° F for too long is not tolerated by many of these fish. When treating for ich, a few days at 86° F is acceptable. The lake is also consistently alkaline with a pH of around 9, and very hard at about 12 – 14° dGH. In the aquarium most Tanganyika cichlids are fairly adaptable as long as conditions are close to these ideal ranges. Most important is that their water chemistry doesn’t change much over time. The water needs to be well buffered and maintained with small, regular water changes.
Salt is sometimes used as a buffering agent to increase the water’s carbonate hardness. Interestingly, Tanganyikan cichlids also need iodine for the thyroid to function properly to regulate growth and development, and which can be achieved by adding iodized table salt to the water. 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. Using a marine salt (used for salt water fish) will add some trace elements.
An alternative buffering approach is to use a chemical filtration method, where they water passes through layers of crushed coral or coral sand. Although rift lake cichlids need hard alkaline water they are not found in brackish waters. This cichlid has some salt tolerance so can be kept in slightly brackish water conditions. However it not suited to a full brackish water tank. It can tolerate a salinity that is about 10% of a normal saltwater tank, a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.
Provide a sandy or very small sized gravel substrate. Sand used for salt water tanks can help keep the pH up as well as the addition of crushed coral. Crushed coral and aragonite sands do tend to dissolve easier than salts. They need plenty of open swimming areas, but the males are also quite shy so need rocks and cave formations for retreat. Make sure all rocks are firm on the bottom as these fish are quite quick but clumsy if startled. Plants are not essential though they do not harm them, nor do they burrow.
- Minimum Tank Size: 70 gal (265 L) – A minimum 70 gallon tank that is at least 48″ in length can house a single specimen. For a group a minimum 125 gallon tank is suggested, with 200 gallons or more being best for long term care.
- Suitable for Nano Tank: No
- Substrate Type: Sand/Gravel Mix
- Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
- Temperature: 74.0 to 79.0° F (23.3 to 26.1° C)
- Breeding Temperature: 77.0° F – Breeding temperature ranges between 77 – 82.4° F (25 – 28 C).
- Range ph: 8.0-8.5
- Hardness Range: 12 – 15 dGH
- Brackish: Sometimes – Salt is not found in their natural environment, but they do have a slight tolerance, keep levels below 10% – a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.
- Water Movement: Moderate
- Water Region: All – These fish will swim in all areas of the aquarium.
They are fairly non-aggressive community fish. Although the male can be territorial, depending on the individual fish, they may show little tendency to do so. They are gregarious and don’t like being alone. A group of one male with three or more females can be kept together or they can be kept in a group of 8 – 12 individuals.
They can be kept in a larger aquarium with other durable fish. But because of their less aggressive temperament, care must be taken that young fish are not seriously harassed in mixed species aquariums. More aggressive Lake Tanganyika or Malawi cichlids do not make good tankmates. Also if kept in a community type environment, the tank mates need to be a pretty good size in relation to the Frontosa Cichlid. This fish is a predator and will eat smaller fishes. Any fish smaller than about 3″ may be at risk of being eaten by an adult.
- Temperament: Semi-aggressive
- Compatible with:
- Same species – conspecifics: Yes – They are gregarious and like companionship. Groups can consist of 1 male with 3 or more females, or a mixed group of 8 – 12 individuals.
- Peaceful fish (): Monitor – Fish smaller than about 3″ may be at risk of being eaten by an adult.
- Semi-Aggressive (): Safe
- Aggressive (): Threat
- Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
- Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
- Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
- Plants: Safe
Sex: Sexual differences
Although it is hard to tell, the male is larger, and often has a more pronounced cranial hump than the female.
Breeding / Reproduction
The Frontosa has long been bred in captivity, though some varieties are easier to breed than others. They are egg layers that form matriarchal families. They are monogamous, where one male spawns with several females. You can buy a group of breeding Frontosa or a group can be obtained by starting with a group of 10 to 12 juveniles. As they grow start reducing the group by removing the largest fish. Do this every six months or so, as the larger fish will be male, until there are 4 – 5 females. A mature male will be about 7″ in length, and a female will be about 5″. It does take about 3 to 4 years for these fish to reach sexual maturity, and males mature more slowly than females, so this is a long process requiring much patience.
The breeding process is fairly simple. The female is a mouth brooder that is a cave spawner in the wild. In the aquarium she prefers spawning on the substrate. The breeding aquarium needs to be large, 100 gallons or more, with rocks and flowerpots for the male to create a territory. The breeding tank should have moderately alkaline, medium hard water with to a pH of around 8, about 10° dGH, and a temperature between 77 – 82.4° F (25 – 28 C).
Females deposit about 50 eggs, usually in a sand pit between the rocks, and males fertilizes them. The eggs hatch in about 3 days. The male is responsible for defending the territory while the female then takes the eggs into her mouth. She will care for the fry for between 4 to 6 weeks. The fry can be fed live baby brine shrimp.. See the description of breeding monogamous cichlids in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.
- Ease of Breeding: Easy
The Frontosa Cichlids are fairly hardy in a properly maintained aquarium. These cichlids 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.
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.
As with most fish they are susceptible 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 Frontosa Cichlid was once only occasionally available and expensive. However today they are found both online and in fish stores, ranging in price from inexpensive to moderately expensive. Price will depending on color variety and whether they are juveniles or adults. Wild caught specimens are generally more costly than tank bred specimens.
- Animal-World References: Freshwater Fish and Plants
- Dr. Rudiger Riehl and Hans A. Baensch, Aquarium Atlas Vol. 1, Publisher Hans A. Baensch, 1991
- Mark Phillip Smith, Lake Tanganyika Cichlids, A Complete Pet Owners Manual, 2nd Edition, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. 2007
- George Zurlo, David Schleser, Cichlids (Complete Pet Owner’s Manual), Barron’s Education Series, 2005
- Glen S. Axelrod, Brian M. Scott, Neal Pronek, Encyclopedia Of Exotic Tropical Fishes For Freshwater Aquariums, TFH Publications, 2005
- Peter Bredell, Frank Schneidewind, Lake Tanganyika Cichlids, How to keep successfully and enjoy these exceptional fish, Interpet Publishing , 2002
- Cyphotilapia frontosa (Boulenger, 1906) Humphead cichlid, Fishbase.org
- Cyprichromis leptosoma, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
- Rhett Butler, “Cichlids – Lake Tanganyika”, Mongabay.com, Referenced online, 2007
- Eric Glab, “Cyphomaniac!”, Cichlid-Forum.com, Referenced 2007
- Glen S. Axelrod, Rift Lake Cichlids, T.F.H. Publications, Inc., 1979