A small, peaceful, and colorful cichlid, the Rainbow Cichlid is a hugely popular and desirable fish!

The Rainbow Cichlid Archocentrus multispinosus (previously Herotilapia multispinosa) is said to be the smallest of the Central American Cichlids. While it can reach just over 6 1/2 inches (17 cm) in the wild, they are significantly smaller in the aquarium and generally only reach a length of about 3 inches (7 cm).

They are personable fish and have been a long time inhabitant in the aquarium hobby. Some of their most notable and desired characteristics are their eponymous ‘rainbow’ coloring, their peaceful nature, and their compact and manageable size. Interestingly, their color is subject to a wide breadth of variability and will change significantly depending on its mood or if it is spawning. They normally present a brilliantly colored body in gold to orange with a broken black horizontal bar running the length of their body. They also display bright accents with orange on the eyes and on most of the fins, along with some beautiful blue hues on their lower body and fins and on the fin tips.

The colorful Rainbow Cichlid is a great addition to a community aquarium, and, due to its relatively small size, can be kept in a fairly small tank, unlike many other cichlids. Being peaceful it can be kept with regular tropical fish, much like Discus and German Rams. It can also make a very attractive show specimen in a species tank.

These are hardy fish and very easy to care for, and they are also not difficult to breed. They do require very clean water, however, so it is recommended to change their water regularly. A fine gravel substrate with rocks and pieces of driftwood for hiding places will make this dwarf cichlid feel right at home. They will also enjoy a heavily planted aquarium and will not generally disturb the plants. If you are going to have plants though, it’s best to make sure they are hardy and and well rooted.

The Rainbow Cichlids, unlike other Central American cichlids, have tricuspid teeth. These teeth allow them to feed on the filamentous algae which makes up a good part of their diet in the wild. This does not pose any real dietary restrictions in the aquarium though, because they are not overly picky eaters. Their teeth had gained them their own monotypic genus under the name of Herotilapia with this fish being the only species in this genus. But more recently it was moved into the Archocentrus as one of three species.

Scientific Classification


Rainbow Cichlid – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Beginner
Aquarium Hardiness:Very hardy
Minimum Tank Size:20 gal (76 L)
Size of fish – inches3.0 inches (7.62 cm)
Temperature:72.0 to 77.0° F (22.2 to 25.0&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Rainbow Cichlid Archocentrus multispinosus (previously Herotilapia multispinosa) was described by Gunther in 1866. They are found in Central America on the Atlantic slope from the Patuca River in Honduras to the Matina River in Costa Rica. They are also found on the Pacific Slope from the Guasaula River in Nicaragua to the Tempisque and Bebedero rivers in Costa Rica. This species is not listed on the IUCN Red List.

They inhabit small lakes, ponds, drainage and swamp areas with muddy bottoms where they dwell among submerged logs, tangled roots, and leaf litter. They are tolerant of high temperatures and can survive in small bodies of water during dry periods. They were actually found established in a hot springs at Heviz, Hungary in in 1991. They feeding on insect larvae, detritus and algae.

One noteable characteristic of these fish is that, unlike other Central American Cichlids, the Rainbow Cichlid have tricuspid teeth, which are specialized for feeding on filamentous algae. Initially these teeth caused the Rainbows to be classified into their own monotypic genus,Herotilapia, with this fish being the only species. More recently, however, it was moved into the Archocentrusgenus as one of three species. Later, in 2008, a study led by Oldrich Rican suggested this fish is more closely related to the two genera Rocio (Jack Dempsey) and Astatheros than to the Archocentrus genus. Thus some in the scientific community have called for it to be moved back to the genus Herotilapia.This potential move has not yet garnered scientific consensus and may or may not occur.

  • Scientific Name: Herotilapia multispinosa
  • Social Grouping: Pairs
  • IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed


The Rainbow Cichlid is a small colorful fish with a stocky oval body and pointed dorsal and anal fins. It is thought to be the smallest of the Central American Cichlids. In the wild they can attain lengths between about 2 1/2 – 6 1/2 inches ((7 – 17 cm), and the males tend to be a bit longer than the females. In the aquarium however, it matures at 3 inches (7 cm) and rarely grows much larger than that. They have a lifespan of 7 – 9 years with proper care.

The body is a golden to orange color and has an irregular black horizontal bar that runs from behind eye on the gill cover back to the tail fin. The eyes are orange and they have orange in most of the fins. The exceptions are the pelvic fins which are bright blue and the anal fins which are a mix of the two colors, with more blue towards the front and the last 1/3 being all orange. Their dorsal fin is orange with this same blue at the tips.

Unlike other Central American Cichlids, these fish have specialized teeth called tricuspid teeth. These are three pointed teeth that allow them to feed on the filamentous algae that makes up a large amount of natural their diet.

All cichlids share a common feature that some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish have. That is 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) – They are known to grow to about 6.5 inches in the wild, but only reach about 3 inches in captivity.
  • Lifespan: 9 years

Fish Keeping Difficulty

Rainbow Cichlids are a great choice for beginners wanting to try their hands at caring for Cichlids. These fish are very easy to maintain and are some of the smallest and most peaceful of the cichlids Like most cichlids, they require very clean water and will need to have their water changed regularily, but they are not picky when it comes to water conditions or temperature and are quite adaptable to a wide variey tof conditions.

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

Foods and Feeding

The Rainbow Cichlid is an omnivore and is a ready and eager eater. They will eat prepared foods including tubifex, freeze-dried bloodworms, ocean plankton, and floating food sticks. Feed a vegetable based flake as well. Feed twice a day in smaller amounts as this will keep the water quality higher over a longer time. Some suggest that a one day a week fast is also beneficial. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods.

  • 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

Do water changes of about 20% biweekly, depending on stocking numbers. If water quality is ignored, as with all cichlids, disease and death can occur. Make sure before cleaning to scrape all viewing panes clean of algae and allow to settle before vacuuming the substrate. Be sure to thoroughly vacuum the substrate to make sure to remove all waste.

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly

Aquarium Setup

A pair can be put in a 20 gallon tank, with 50 gallons suggested if kept with other fish. They prefer slow to moderate moving water along with good efficient filtration. Provide a fine gravel substrate with rocks, roots, and pieces of driftwood for hiding places. They will also enjoy a heavily planted aquarium and will not generally disturb the plants. If you are going to have plants it’s best to make sure they are hardy and and well rooted. Do water changes of 20% weekly, depending on stocking numbers.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gal (76 L)
  • Substrate Type: Sand/Gravel Mix
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 77.0° F (22.2 to 25.0&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: 82.0° F
  • Range ph: 6.5-8.0
  • Hardness Range: 5 – 20 dGH
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Weak
  • Water Region: All

Social Behaviors

The Rainbow Cichlid is a peaceful cichlid and well suited to being kept in a community tank. They can be kept in a tropical tank with catfish, certain live bearers, tetras, giant danios, rainbowsand plecostomus. In a community cichlid tank of larger semi-aggressive cichlids, it can be kept with other similarly sized South American cichlids of like temperament. Species like the Firemouth Cichlid, Blood Parrot, and Convict Cichlid can make good tank mates due to their non-competitive nature, but be sure to keep an eye on them and make sure everyone’s doing okay.

They can readily be kept singly or in pairs. Being relatively peaceful, if the tank is large enough they may even be housed with another pair. Keep in mind, however, that like all cichlids these fish do become territorial and aggressive during spawning and the tank should be monitored during that time.

  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes
    • 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

It is hard to differentiate between males and females of this species. Males are slightly more colorful and will have more pointed fins, while females will be a bit smaller when mature.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Rainbow Cichlid are open breeders and form nuclear families in which the older siblings care for the younger. Buy several juveniles and let them form pairs naturally. Once you have a pair, condition them on frozen foods like brine shrimp and blood worms.

Provide a flower pot or flat stone for the spawn. The tank should have a pH of 7.0, a water hardness of 5 – 10° dH, and a temperature of 82° F (28° C) for breeding with frequent water changes. The pair may turn a dark color when becoming ready to spawn. The female will lay 300-1,000 eggs out in the open on a rock or root. the parents will fan the eggs for 3 days until the fry hatch and then move them to another area of the tank. Be aware that at times new parents may eat some of the fry. If you are worried they are eating too many, you can move the fry to their own tank.

The fry can be fed freshly hatched baby brine shrimp or Cyclopeeze. After a week you can feed them crushed flake food. It would be a good idea to remove any other fish that may eat the fry during the night like catfish or plecostomus. See more about cichlid breeding in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Moderate

Fish Diseases

The Rainbow Cichlids 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. Intestinal disease can be treated with metronidazol.

As with most fish they 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 Rainbow Cichlid is readily available both in fish stores and online. They are inexpensive for juveniles and moderately priced for adults.



Featured Image Credit: Pavaphon Supanantananont, Shutterstock