The Livingstoni Cichlid is a very tricky fish. It is an ambush predator that will ‘play dead’ and snatch unsuspecting small fish!

The Livingstoni Nimbochromis livingstonii (previously Haplochromis livingstonii) is a large handsome cichlid. This fish can reach close to 10 inches (25 cm) in length. Its color pattern is highly contrasting, with prominent dark blotches on a yellow, silver, or bluish background. There is also a “star” pattern to the eye, created by 4 lines dark lines radiating outward. This provides an excellent camouflage for it in its natural habitat, where it swims among plants and preys on smaller fishes. Other names it is known by include Livingston’s Cichlid, Livingston’s Hap, and Livingstonii.

The impressive size along with its interesting behavior and handsome color pattern make this a very interesting aquarium inhabitant. The German name for the Livingstoni Cichlid is the ‘Sleeper’. This term originated from its unusual predatory behavior of ‘playing dead’. This cichlid will stay on the bottom of the aquarium, lying flat on its side for long periods of time. When smaller fish approach as if to nibble at the dead carcass, they are captured with a lightning quick lunge. It will instantly grab it using a sideways motion of its head and mouth.

This ambushing tactic is a very clever trait found in all the cichlids in the Nimbochromis genus. These cichlids are different from the Mbuna cichlids, (Mbuna meaning “rock-dwelling”) in the way that they prefer open swimming areas where the rocks meet the sand. The members of this genus are all very smart, stealthy predatory fish, but each has its own distinctive technique.

An interesting example is the Elephant Nosed Cichlid N. linni. It will rest with its chin on the rocks just above a hideout of small fish, remaining motionless waiting for the small prey to venture out. Then he quickly extends his highly protusable mouth and sucks the prey up. A slightly different ambushing technique is employed its close relative, the Venustus Cichlid N. venustus. This cichlid will partially bury itself in the sand. Then it will then hold very still waiting for an unsuspecting small fish to swim by. Once its prey is within reach, it will quickly dart out of the sand to snatch it.

The Livingstoni Cichlid is very similar in appearance to the Venustus Cichlid, but is not quite as colorful as it lacks the blue coloration seen on the head of Venustus. It has also often been confused with the Polystigma Cichlid, N. polystigma, which is very similar as it also has the large blotches. However the Polystigma Cichlid has many small dots all over its body as well, which are missing in the Livingstoni.

This is a great fish for both the intermediate and experienced aquarists. It is not a community fish but makes an impressive display in a large cichlid aquarium. Although it is very aggressive as a predator, it is a fairly peaceful among its own kind. They have a “harem polygyny” nature where males maintain a territory with several females, so it is best to keep one male with at least three females. Do not mix them with the overactive and aggressive Mbunas.

This cichlid is generally easy to care for as long as the aquarist realizes their predatory nature and need for a lot of space. A minimun of 70 gallons is okay when small, but because they grow quickly and have a predatory nature, 125 gallons or more is suggested for adults. They are not as demanding as far as water quality compared to most cichlids, but they do need to be fed properly to avoid Malawi bloat.

A sand substrate will make them feel most at home. Make sure there are lots of hiding places in rocks and wood. They need some open areas in which to swim so its best to place the decor towards the back of the aquarium. They also like lots of plants, such as Vallisneria, which creates a more natural environment for them. Even though these fish will burrow, they don’t disturb them.

Scientific Classification


Livingstoni Cichlid – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Intermediate
Aquarium Hardiness:Moderately hardy
Minimum Tank Size:125 gal (473 L)
Size of fish – inches9.8 inches (24.99 cm)
Temperature:73.0 to 82.0° F (22.8 to 27.8&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Livingstoni Nimbochromis livingstonii was described by G{uuml}nther in 1894. This is one of the original Haplochromis group and was previously described as Haplochromis livingstonii. It occurs in the Africa rift lake area and is endemic to Lake Malawi, Lake Malombe, and the upper Shire River. Other common names it is known by are Livingston’s Cichlid, Livingston’s Hap, and Livingstonii.

This species is listed on the IUCN Red List as Lease Concern (LC). It is endemic to Lake Malawi, Lake Malombe, and the upper Shire and is very widespread. There is a possible population decline in the southern part of Lake Malawi thought to be related to trawl fishing in that area, but there are no other recognized threats at present.

They are found in all kinds of habitats from shallow lakeshores down to depths of 374 feet (114 m). They are most common in vegetated sheltered bays swimming among Vallisneria plants. They are usually solitary and territorial, and feed on small fish and invertebrates. They use an ambush technique of lying flat on the sand waiting for small fish to swim over it. Then quickly, using a sideways motion of its head and mouth, it will snatch the unaware prey.

  • Scientific Name: Nimbochromis livingstonii
  • Social Grouping: Solitary
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Livingstoni is a good sized cichlid with a stocky, elongated body and a large mouth. They reach up to about 10 inches (25 cm) in length. They have an interesting color patterning provides a good camouflage for them in their natural habitat, where they swim among plants and prey on smaller fishes.

The body can range from silvery, yellowish or blue, but with a highly contrasting black blotched patterning. The blotches are connected in a random manner both horizontally and vertically. They eye has four dark bold stripes radiating outward. The dorsal fin can have some blue with an orange to red band, and sometimes a white line. There are faint spots on the pectoral fins and the anal fin is usually orange to red.

The males have an egg shaped pattern on the anal fin and can have some blue on the forehead. Females are similarly patterned, but less colorful and without the egg spot or the blue forehead. Juveniles have a white and brown spotted patterning. This fish has a life span of up to 10 years.

All cichlids share a common feature that some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish have and that is a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth that are 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: 9.8 inches (24.99 cm)
  • Lifespan: 10 years – They have a lifespan of about 10 years with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

This is a great fish for both the intermediate and experienced cichlid keeper. Although it is highly predatory in nature, it is one of the more peaceful cichlids with its own kind. 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.

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

Foods and Feeding

The Livingstoni are omnivorous, but in the wild they habitually feed on fish so can be considered a piscivore. In the aquarium they do best with a high protein diet, so can be fed live or frozen food, freeze dried krill, pellets, and other high quality foods for piscivores. Occasionally feed mysis and feeder fish, though feeder fish can initiate hunting instincts and cause more aggression. They need some herbivorous foods as well to balance out their diet.

Young up to 3 to 4″ can be fed flake, but after that flake is too messy and will foul the water. Adults do best when fed frozen foods twice a week. They will eat to the point of their stomach being distended, so be very careful to not overfeed.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore – This fish is primarily a predatory piscivore, though it will eat some vegetable foods on occasion.
  • Flake Food: Yes – Flakes work fine for juveniles until they reach about 3-4″, but then they become too messy for the tank.
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Most of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Daily – Juveniles can be fed daily, but as adults 2 – 3 feedings a week are fine.

Aquarium Care

Malawi Cichlids will deteriorate under poor water conditions. Water changes of 10% to 20% a week depending on bioload. Malawi bloat is a typical disease especially if over fed and there is a lack of some herbivorous foods that are high quality

  • Water Changes: Weekly – Water changes of 10-20% weekly are suggested, depending on the bio load.

Aquarium Setup

The streams that flow into Lake Malawi have a high mineral content. This along with 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.

Rift lake cichlids need hard alkaline water but are not found in brackish waters. Salt is sometimes used as a buffering agent to increase the water’s carbonate hardness. 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.

A minimum 70 gallon tank will work when small, but because they grow quickly and have an aggressive nature, 125 gallons is suggested. They do fine in either freshwater or brackish freshwater but need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration. Poor water quality will ruin their eyes. Keeping the ph above neutral is important. They can tolerate any Ph above neutral, but a ph level of 8 is best.

Sand for substrate will make them feel most at home. Sand used for saltwater fish or freshwater can be used. If keeping them with a higher ph, the saltwater sand can help keep the ph up. Crushed coral or aragonite sand can also increase the water’s carbonate hardness, and tend to dissolves easier than salts. However if you use a rough substrate, they will be scratched up due to their nature of burying themselves. Keeping a higher pH however, means that ammonia is more lethal, so regular water changes are a must for these fish.

They like a lot of hiding places in rocks and wood, but place the decor towards the back of the aquarium. Most importantly there needs to be a lot of swimming areas along the middle and bottom of the tank. They also like lots of plants such as Vallisneria, which creates a more natural environment for them. They will burrow but pose no threat to plants.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 125 gal (473 L) – When small they can be kept in a minimum 70 gallon tank, but for adults 125 gallons is suggested.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Substrate Type: Sand
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 73.0 to 82.0° F (22.8 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Range ph: 7.7-8.6
  • Hardness Range: 6 – 10 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.

Social Behaviors

The Livingstoni Cichlids are not community fish. Though only moderately aggressive, they are predaceous and will eat anything small. They are best kept in a species tank or with other cichlids. They are relatively peaceful among themselves, but get very territorial when spawning. They should not be kept with Mbunas (smaller rock dwelling cichlids). Also don’t put this fish with peaceful cichlids.

Since they are polygamist breeders they are best kept in groups of one male and several females l (three or more). During spawning they will attack and kill any other males of the same species in the tank unless the tank is large. If overstocking is used as a form of aggression reduction, care should be taken to do several partial water changes a week.

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive – Although they are voracious predators, they are only moderately aggressive as long as the tank is large enough.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes – They are best kept in groups of 1 male with 3 or more females. The male will attack and kill another male.
    • Peaceful fish (): Threat
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Safe
    • Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
    • Plants: Monitor

Sexual differences

The male has egg-shaped patterns on its’ anal fins. He is also larger than the female and can have a blue hue on his forehead. 

Breeding / Reproduction

The Livingstoni Cichlids are egg layers and form matriarchal families. They are polygamous in nature with a male attending several females. This cichlid has been bred in captivity. It is best to place one male with at least three females.

Unlike others in this genus, they do not dig a spawning pit. They like a flat stone or slate to lay the eggs on. The female will lay up to 100 eggs. Being a mouth brooder she will then pick up the eggs into her mouth for incubation. She will care for the larvae and eggs and when they become fry, she will take them into her mouth at night or anytime she percieves danger. The fry can eat cyclopeeze and finely crushed flake. See the description of how cichlids breed in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

Malawi bloat is a typical disease for the Livingstoni Cichlid, especially if their dietary needs are not met with quality foods. They are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and 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.

As with most fish they are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. 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 Livingstonii Cichlid is usually found online and are moderately priced, but prices vary depending on whether they are male, female, or juvenile. They are also found in fish stores, though may be special ordered if you are willing to wait for them if they are out of season.



Featured Image Credit: Kazakov Maksim, Shutterstock