The Panda Dwarf Cichlid Apistogramma nijsseni(named after the female’s presentation of black blotches) is one of the newer arrivals to the fish keeping hobby and as a scientifically recognized species. Also known as Nijssen’s Dwarf Cichlid, these fish were only described as recently as 1979 by Kullander and have quickly become a welcome and popular addition to many community tanks!

One notable feature of this fish is how differently colored and patterned the males are compared to the females. This is notable mostly because it is only the females of this species who sport the eponymous ‘panda bear’ patterning, while the males display a broad array of colors. In addition, these cichlids are known for being excellent parents and one of the easier species of cichlids to breed. These interesting features coupled with their small size and peaceful nature make them a great choice for an advanced aquarist looking to keep a smaller community tank.

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid tends to be a bit thicker and bulkier in the body than most other dwarf, or Apistogramma, cichlids.Still they are very small cichlids, with the males reaching less than 3′ (7.5 cm) in length and the females only about 1.75″ (4.5 cm). With a pair of these attractive cichlids you also get that cool cichlid personality, only in a small package. Watching them share the raising of their fry is quite a sight and their small size makes them more manageable than many of the other cichlid species.

These fish can be kept in a community tank with non-cichlids and even with smaller fish. The best tankmates for the Panda Dwarf will be peaceful fish around the same size, or slightly smaller, who tend to stick to swimming towards the top of the tank. This will include many types of Hatchetfish, Neon Tetras, Zebra Danios, and many others. Provide a substrate of small dark gravel along with rocks and pots to create plenty of caves, one for each female’s territory. They do enjoy densely planted aquariums and floating plants will help to diffuse the lighting. Make areas for them to “defend” by having natural divisions in the aquascaping.

This colorful dwarf is moderate to difficult to care for since water changes must be performed frequently. It does well in acidic water, needs the nitrate levels low, and the pH level must be kept within the correct parameters. A wild Panda Dwarf Cichlid is more sensitive than a tank bred specimen and breeding wild caught specimens with captive bred helps to keep the lines healthier and the fish more hardy. If water quality is ignored, as with all cichlids, disease and death can occur. Just a little dedication will reap pleasurable results from this little fish.

Scientific Classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Apistogramma
  • Species: nijsseni

Panda Dwarf Cichlid – Quick Aquarium Care

  • Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
  • Size of fish – inches: 3.0 inches (7.62 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gal (76 L)
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult
  • Temperature: 73.0 to 86.0° F (22.8 to 30.0&deg C)
Aquarist Experience Level:Intermediate
Aquarium Hardiness:Moderately hardy
Minimum Tank Size:20 gal (76 L)
Size of fish – inches3.9 inches (10.01 cm)
Temperature:74.0 to 81.0° F (23.3 to 27.2&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid Apistogramma nijsseni was described by Kullander in 1979. They are found in the Amazon River basin in South America. They are only known from northern Peru in the Carahuayte and Yavarí River drainage areas that are tributaries to the Ucayali River. This species is not listed on the IUCN Red List. Other common names they are known by are Nijssen’s Dwarf Cichlid and Dwarf Panda Cichlid.

They live among vegetation in creeks, tributaries, backwaters and smaller rivers where they apparently feed mostly on benthic invertebrates. These black-water habitats are created by fallen tree branches and leaf litter under a forest canopy that allows little direct sunlight. These cichlids are polygamous and form harems of a dominant male and multiple females.

  • Scientific Name: Apistogramma nijsseni
  • Social Grouping: Harems
  • IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed


The Panda Dwarf Cichlid is a small colorful fish with a bit thicker and bulkier body than other members of the Apistogramma genus. The males are the larger sex, growing to 3″(7.5 cm) in length, while females only reach about 1.75″ (4.5 cm). They can live about 2 – 5 years.

The male sports an array of colors. The basic coloration is a blue through the center area and near the dorsal fin. Along the back are several black “background” blotches that extend from the head to the tail fin, with one dot right in the middle of the caudal area. They have a silvery blue sheen in between the blotches that extends down below the midline of the body in some areas. The belly is yellow as is the anal fin and most of the tail fin. The tail fin presents a progression of colors beginning with yellow, turning to a blue, then black, and ending with a red edging of the fin.

The females are mostly yellow with several black blotches on the body that give them the “panda” name. One black blotch is under her eye and extends to the lower end of the gill covering. Another is in the middle front and a third at the caudal fin area in the middle, but leeching into the tail fin. The dorsal fin has a black blotch on the first several rays and the pelvic fin has black as well. Her tail fin is a drab yellow/gray color with the edge trimmed in an orange/yellow color.

All cichlids, along with some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish, share a common trait of a 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: 3.0 inches (7.62 cm)
  • Lifespan: 5 years

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid is not a beginner fish and should should only be kept by experienced aquarists who are well versed in the issues of water chemistry. These fish are very susceptible to sudden changes as well as improper levels in the pH,hardness, and temperature of the water, Theyare frequent victims to disease and death brought on by changes in these water parameters. Thus, it is best for their keeper be experienced in maintainingstability when performing water changes and in understanding how different aspects of the water chemistry will interact with each other. Also, Panda Dwarf Cichlids tend to be picky and uncompromising eaters. They may require spending substantial amounts of time and money simply figuring out how and when to feed them.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced

Foods and Feeding

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid is a carnivore that can be fed newly hatched baby brine, frozen brine shrimp, crustaceans, insects, insect larvae, and some may eat flakes and pelleted foods. Feed 2 to 5 small pinches of food a day in smaller amounts rather than 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: Carnivore
  • Flake Food: Occasionally – Can be trained to eat flakes when young.
  • Tablet / Pellet: Occasionally
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Most of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet – If trained to eat flake.
  • Meaty Food: Most of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day

Aquarium Care

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid needs a strict maintenance schedule to ensure survival and optimum health. Water changes should be performed once a week and should only replace about 10 – 15% of the water as large water changes are not good for this fish. Before changing the water make sure to clear all viewing panes of algae and the substrate thoroughly once the algae has settled upon it. Be sure to remove as much of the old organic and decomposing matter from the substrate as you can during this process.

  • Water Changes: Weekly

Aquarium Setup

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid needs to be housed in at least a 20 gallon tank. They will only feel safe when provided with plenty of hiding places and areas where they are not visible to tank observers. This can be acheived in a number of ways, including forming caves out of rock, flowerpots, plastic tubing, and sunken driftwood, as well as keeping some floating plants for them to swim among. The substrate should be made up of a soft sand/ gravel mix with hand fulls of dried leaves to give a natural feel. The leaves will help provide a comforting “black-water” feel to the tank by releasing a tea-stained coloration and will also help provide a breeding ground for beneficial microbiobial colonies. Be sure to remove and replace these leaves every few days. Alternatively, you can add a bag of aquarium safe peat to the filter to help simulate the “black-water” environment without the mess of the leaves, but also without the benefit of the microbes. This peat should be removed and replace about once a week.

The filtration should be efficient but not powerful enough to create more than a moderate amount of water movement. The Panda prefers moderate lighting preferably diffused by floating plants. Plants like Taxiphyllum, Anubias and Microsorum will grow best in that environment. Patches of plants make for great areas of shade and hiding places for this little cichlid.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gal (76 L)
  • Substrate Type: Sand/Gravel Mix
  • Lighting Needs: Low – subdued lighting
  • Temperature: 73.0 to 86.0° F (22.8 to 30.0&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: – 79° to 84° F (26° – 29° C)
  • Range ph: 5.0-7.0
  • Hardness Range: 2 – 10 dGH
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Weak
  • Water Region: Middle

Social Behaviors

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid is a community fish that can be kept with non-cichlids. Fish that are not large and aggressive and swim primarily close to the surface will make the best tank mates. They can also be kept with other Apistogramma dwarf cichlids and will be peaceful if the male has females to tend to, though solitary males have a tendency to become aggressive. They are best kept in harem situations with one male leading a pack of 3 or 4 females. More than one male may be kept in a single aquarium as long as the aquarium is large and the males are each apportioned their own group of females.

South American cichlids tend to be less aggressive than their African cousins, but it is recommended to only keep them with other fish in a large aquarium. Some acceptable tank mates are; characin species like the Cardinal Tetras and the Three-Line Pencilfish, Otocinclus Catfish and Corydoras like the Julii Cory, Glowlight Rasbora (Hengel’s), Dwarf Gourami, Kuhli Loach, and Dwarf (Neon) Rainbowfish. Do not keep Coryadoras catfish with breeding pairs, since they will eat the fry.

  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Sometimes – Should be one male to a group of females.
    • Peaceful fish (): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: May be aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sexual differences

Males are larger and have more of a blue sheen to their body, with some reds and a yellow belly. The smaller females are yellow with black blotches.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Panda Dwarf Cichlids are cave spawners. They appreciate upturned flowerpots, fake “coconut caves,” bogwood, and broad leafed plants for cover and as spawning sites. They require breeding conditions of a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, a water hardness of 5 – 8 dH, and a temperature of 79° to 84° F (26° – 29° C) with frequent water changes.

They should be kept in a harem of one male to at least 3 females. The female will approach the male, curve her body, and display to catch his attention. When he sees her, he will then “dance” by flashing his fins. The female will lay oval eggs on the roof surface of her cave. The male will fertilize them and then promptly leave the cave to patrol on the outside.

The female and male will care for the eggs which will hatch in for 3 to 4 days, depending on water temperature. The fry are free swimming a few days after hatching. Both parents will guard the fry together and watch over them carefully. After a month the female will chase them out of her territory. The male will continue to watch them for one more week and then they are on their own. If there are several females, the male may fertilize another female’s eggs and let her care for them on her own. This depends also on the males personality, as to which batch of fry he will tend to.Note: do not keep the fry in the same aquarium with corydoras as they tend to eat live fry during the night.

The fry can be fed liquid foods and rotifers once they are free swimming and then fed artemia anuplii or live freshly hatched baby brine shrimp after about a week or two. The fry should be fed around 3 times a day. Sexing the fry is pretty easy since males have the red in their tail fin and the females are yellow.

If you are interested in obtaining more of one sex than the other, a system that works for the Cockatoo Cichlid may work for the Panda Dwarf Cichlid as well. It has been stated that for the Cockatoo Cichlid if the water temperature is low (68° F or 20° C) most of the fry will be females, while with higher temperatures (86° F or 30° C) the fry will mostly be male. pH also plays a role in the sex of the fry, but to a much lesser extent. These conditions must also be kept constant for the first 3 weeks to be effective. See more about cichlid breeding in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Moderate

Fish Diseases

The Panda Dwarf Cichlids are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. Be aware of the following diseases that are found in the Amazon (per Parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.) including White spot Disease known as Ich (Ichthyobodo Infection), Costia Disease, Flatworms (Metacercaria Infection), Cestoda infestation (Tapeworms), Metacercaria Infection (Flatworms), Bacterial Infections (general), Bacterial diseases, and Turbidity of the Skin (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.

As with most fish the Nijssen’s Dwarf 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.

Anything that is added to the tank can introduce harmful bacteria or chemicals to the system. Thus, it is recommended that whenever you add anything to the tank, you should take steps to first either quarantine or clean the new addition.


The Panda Dwarf Cichlid is often available online and is moderately expensive, with a pair being more. They are a rare find in fish stores, but can usually be special ordered if you are willing to wait.



 Apistogramma nijsseni (Image Credit: Sascha Biedermann, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic)