The Compressed Cichlid Altolamprologus compressiceps is specialized for life in its natural habitat with some distinguishing features. The species name “compressiceps” is derived from its very laterally compressed head and body. It also has a high back and deep mouth. Other common names it is known by include Compressiceps Cichlid, Lamp Compressiceps, and Comps Cichlid.

This cichlid’s unusual body shape is adapted for the only environment it inhabits in the wild, rocky rubble areas. It is not found where there are sandy substrates or even where the rocks are covered with silt or sediment. Its shape allows it to slip easily through narrow cracks and crevices in rocks. There it hides and preys on small fish and aquatic invertebrates.

It is closely related to a very similar-looking relative, the White Pearly CalvusAltolamprologus calvus. But although these two look much the same, there are several differences. The Compressiceps has a pattern of bold pronounced vertical barring with very subdued, indistinct spots while the Calvus is brightly spotted with less distinct stripes. In body the Compressiceps is thicker in width, has a higher back, and has a sloping forehead with a blunt upturned snout. The Calvus has a longer, shallower body giving it a more streamlined appearance. The Compressiceps also grows larger, reaching up to 6 – 7 inches, while the smaller Calvus is only attains a length of about 5 – 6 inches.

There are several geographic color variations of this cichlid. Overall its body is patterned with between 8 to 12 dark vertical bars and white to bluish spots. But its color can range in a variety of hues from dark browns, to reds, yellows, or rusty oranges. Different variations are often named for their locality and/or color, some of which are the Altolamprologus compressiceps “Gold Head Muzi”, “Chaitika Orange”, “Gold Head Kasanga”, “Gold Head Mutondwe”, and “Nangu”.

One of the most unique Compressiceps is a dwarf, shell-dwelling variant. It is commonly known as the Altolamprologus compressiceps “Sumbu Dwarf” or “Sumbu Shell”. In looks pretty much like the others, but with yellowish-orange pectoral fins and it is usually smaller. Reportedly it can grow almost as large as the others in captivity, but in the wild the males will only reach about 3 1/2 inches (9 cm) in length and the females between 1 3/4 to 2 inches (4.5 – 5 cm). In behavior, it is similar as well, except for its preferred home. The Compressed Cichlids will inhabit the deep crevices of rocks and boulders and occasionally large shells, so can be called “opportunistic shell dwellers”. But this variant is a natural shell dweller, inhabiting and breeding in shells.

This is a good fish for the intermediate and experienced cichlid keeper. It is moderate to easy to care for, however it can be a somewhat picky eater until established and is susceptible to disease. Many specimens are wild-caught, and a wild-caught fish is as fragile as it is handsome. Captive breed specimens are generally more durable and easier to acclimate. An aquarium best suited to this fish would be at least 40-50 gallons with a sandy bottom and lots of rock formations for hiding places. Though plants are not essential, this cichlid does not burrow and will not harm them.

These cichlids are usually quiet and peaceful with other fish. They can be kept in a community aquarium as long as the tank mates are not too small. Only a single pair should be kept in a community tank with other Lake Tanganyika cichlids as it can get territorial with its own species. To keep more than one will take a larger aquarium to make sure there is lots of room.

Just a word of caution, despite the quiet fragile nature of the Compressed Cichlid it does have some defenses. They are not usually an aggressor, but if attacked by another fish they do have tough sharp scales on their flanks. They will defend themselves by bending their body to extend these sharp scales. They need this protection because they are sensitive to any type of jaw locking. Their jaws are sensitive and easily dislocated. Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod also cautions when handling this fish, to do it carefully. In his book, Starting Your Tropical Aquarium, he says, “its dorsal fin spines are very sharp and cause an unpleasant itching if the skin is pierced”. So if you do handle it, do so with care.

Scientific Classification


Compressed Cichlid – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Intermediate
Aquarium Hardiness:Moderately hardy
Minimum Tank Size:40 gal (151 L)
Size of fish – inches7.9 inches (19.99 cm)
Temperature:74.0 to 79.0° F (23.3 to 26.1&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Compressed Cichlid Altolamprologus compressiceps was described by Boulenger in 1898. They are found in 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. Other common names it is known by include Compressiceps Cichlid, Lamp Compressiceps, and Comps Cichlid.

The Altolamprologus genus is a small group of cichlids in Lake Tanganyika with about 3 described species and a number of variants or possible subspecies. These fish are secretive substrate spawners, mostly spawning in caves or crevices in the rocks. They will sometimes spawn in shells so can be considered “opportunistic shell dwellers”.

This genus is one of the smallest groups in the tribe Lamprologini. The Lamprologini tribe contains seven genera and nearly 100 species of African Cichlids, most of which are found in Lake Tanganyika. The Lamprologini cichlids are highly variable and are found in all kinds of habitats. They are found both at the surface and in very deep waters, but all species are substrate spawners.

This cichlid is widely spread throughout the lake, but living close to shore in the littoral regions. Though more passive in temperament, tend to live solitary as adults except when spawning. Adults inhabit depths below 32 feet (10 m), but juveniles inhabit quiet rocky areas in water about 3 feet (1 m) deep. This fish is adapted for rocky rubble areas and is only found in this type of terrain. It is not found where there are any sandy substrates or even where the rocks are covered with silt or sediment. Its shape allows it to to slip easily through narrow cracks and crevices in rocks. They are predatory fish, feeding on aquatic invertebrates and small fish.

  • Scientific Name: Altolamprologus compressiceps
  • Social Grouping: Solitary – They tend to live singly except when breeding.
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Compressed Cichlid is high backed and has a very laterally compressed head and body. The forehead slopes down to a large, deep mouth that is somewhat upturned. It commonly grows to about 6 – 7 inches (15 – 18 cm) in length, but has a reported size of almost 8 inches (20 cm). They can live about 10 years with proper care.

The body is patterned with between 8 to 12 dark vertical bars and white to bluish spots. There are several geographic color variations of this cichlid ranging in a variety of hues from dark browns, to reds, yellows or rusty oranges.

There are several geographic variants and they are often named for their locality and/or color. A few of these include:

  • Altolamprologus compressiceps “Gold Head Muzi”
  • Altolamprologus compressiceps “Chaitika Orange”
  • Altolamprologus compressiceps “Gold Head Kasanga”
  • Altolamprologus compressiceps “Gold Head Mutondwe”
  • Altolamprologus compressiceps “Sumbu Dwarf” or “Sumbu Shell”
  • Altolamprologus compressiceps “Nangu”
  • Size of fish – inches: 7.9 inches (19.99 cm) – They generally reach only about 6 – 7″ (15 – 18 cm) in the aquarium.
  • Lifespan: 10 years – They have a lifespan of about 10 years with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

This is a fish best kept by intermediate and experienced cichlid keepers. It is a fairly peaceful cichlid that can be kept with other fish, but it is predatory and will eat smaller fish, and it will be aggressive towards others of its own kind. It is moderately easy to care for but can be a somewhat picky eater until established and is susceptible to disease. The aquarists must be willing to provide a properly set up aquarium with appropriate tank mates, and be willing to do frequent water changes.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate

Foods and Feeding

Since they are carnivores, the Compressed Cichlid needs protein foods. Although they can be a bit picky, once established they will eat live foods such as mysis shrimp and earthworms, but do like large chunks. They may also eat prepared foods such as freeze dried krill, frozen foods (such as brine shrimp or blood worms), as well as protein tablets.

Protein flakes can be offered but should not constitute the major portion of their diet as they will not get adequate nutrition from flakes alone. Feed 2 to 5 portions of food a day in smaller amounts instead of a large quantity once a day. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods.

  • Diet Type: Carnivore
  • Flake Food: Occasionally
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Half of Diet
  • Meaty Food: All of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Daily – Offer several small feedings a day rather than a single large feeding for better water quality over time.

Aquarium Care

Do normal water changes of 10% to 15% a week, or more frequent changes depending on the nitrite/ammonia levels and stocking numbers. The Lake Tanganyika 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 and the water tends to stay stable.

  • Water Changes: Weekly – Water changes of 10-15% weekly are suggested, only do more if the water parameters are off. Be cautious of doing more frequent changes as these fish are very sensitive to new water.

Aquarium Setup

The Compressed Cichlid is active and will swim in the bottom and middle areas of the aquarium. For small juveniles In a species only tank, a minimum of 20 gallons will be fine . But for an adult a 40 – 50 gallon aquarium is suggested. A larger tank, up to 100 gallons would be required for a pair or if mixing with other species, and even larger if keeping more than one pair. They need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration. 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. An alternative buffering approach is to use a chemical filtration method, where the water passes through layers of crushed coral or coral sand.  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. 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.

They need a lot of rocks and cave formations but also need plenty of open swimming areas. A sandy bottom is also preferred, or a 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 a lot of rocks piled up to create cave formations. Plants are not essential though they do not harm them, nor do they burrow.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gal (151 L) – A 40 – 50 gallon aquarium is suggested for a single adult with 100 gallons or more for a pair or if mixing species, and larger for more than one pair.
  • 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&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: 77.0° F – Breeding temperatures range between 77 – 86° F (25 – 30 C).
  • Range ph: 8.0-8.5 – Wild caught specimens prefer the higher pH.
  • 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: Middle – These fish will swim in the bottom and middle of the aquarium.

Social Behaviors

The Compressed Cichlid is a fairly non-aggressive community fish. They can be kept in a species only tank or in a larger aquarium with other durable fish. They don’t burrow or disturb plants. If kept in a community type environment, the tank mates need to be pretty good size in relation to the Compressed Cichlid as this fish is a predator and will eat smaller fishes.

They can be kept with other Tanganyikan cichlids that are not overly aggressive, such as those of the Neolamprologus genera or Julidochromis genera. It is best to avoid housing them with the African cichlids from Lake Malawi or Lake Victoria. It is also not wise to house them with shell dwelling species, as they will snack on them.

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Sometimes – Though they are primarily a solitary species, a pair can be kept in 100 gallon or larger aquarium.
    • Peaceful fish (): Monitor
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Safe – They are predatory, so all tankmates must be too large to be eaten.
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Monitor
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sexual differences

The males are larger and become more high-bodied than the female. Males also have longer fins.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Compressed Cichlids are egg layers. They are sheltered substrate spawners. The female will pick a crevice too small for the male to enter to lay her eggs. The male will lie over the opening and release his sperm to fertilize the eggs. They should be conditioned with solid nourishment such as shrimps. Females can spawn every 25-35 days when kept in condition.

The breeding aquarium needs to have rocks and flowerpots, even shells have been used, for the female to spawn in. The opening to spawning areas need to be small enough for the female to enter but not the male, as the male is quite territorial and may harass the female. The breeding tank should have moderately alkaline, medium hard to hard water with to a pH of around 7.5 – 8.5, about 10 – 20° dGH, and a temperature between 77 – 86° F (25 – 30 C).

The female will lay up to 300 eggs or more. The female will guard the family while male is responsible for defending the territory. The fry will be free swimming in about 10 – 14 days after the eggs hatch, and for best success remove them to their own grow out tank. The fry can be fed live baby brine shrimp. They are slow growers, taking up to 6 months to reach a size of one inch. See the description of breeding monogamous cichlids in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Moderate

Fish Diseases

The Compressed Cichlid is 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 Compressed Cichlid, also called the Compressiceps Cichlid or Lamp Compressiceps, is more rare and fairly expensive. As almost all available specimens are wild caught. Juveniles will run be moderately expensive.



 Altolamprologus compressiceps – Karlsruhe Zoo (Image Credit: H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)