African Cichlid Fish: Everything You Need To Know




african cichlid fish

Sharing is caring!

Do you know that there are over 1300 African cichlid species? And that’s just the ones we know of – who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered!

African cichlids are a species of South American freshwater fish native to large African lakes, such as Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria.

These fish include some of the most popular aquarium fish in the world, such as the electric blue African cichlid and the African Butterfly cichlid.

If you’re thinking about adding these guys to your aquarium, this care guide is for you! In this guide, I will cover everything you need to know about their care, from tank requirements to diet and breeding.

African Cichlids Species Overview

African Cichlid Info
Scientific namePseudotropheus sp
DistributionEast Africa
Size2–12 inches
Life expectancy3–10 years
ColorVarious colors, including blue, yellow, pink, green, red, and purple, with spots or stripes
Minimum tank size30 gallons
Temperature75–85°F (24–29°C)
Hardness12–30 dGH
Care LevelModerate
BreedingEgg layer or mouthbrooder, depending on the type of African cichlid
Water typeModerately hard, tropical freshwater
SubstrateFine, soft sand
Tank setupPlants, rocks, caves, hollow decorations
FilterYes, to keep the tank clean and reduce nitrates
PumpNot essential – African cichlids don’t require a strong current
BubblerNo, African cichlids don’t need additional oxygen
LightingStandard aquarium lighting can encourage plant growth and highlight the fish’s beautiful colors.
Water heaterYes, to maintain a warm, tropical water temperature

What Are African Cichlids?

Africa is recognized as the birthplace of humanity, with millions of creatures crawling on land and in the water. Most belong to eastern African waters, including Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika.

Aside from being originally from Africa, you can also find them in South America and some parts of Asia. Also, some cichlids live in saltwater, while others live in freshwater.

African Cichlids History

Cichlidae are brightly-colored freshwater fish that functional studies show exist in over 1000 varieties across Africa, 300 in South America, and 3 in Asia.

In 1858, Richard Burton and John Speke discovered Lake Tanganyika’s first African cichlid population. One year later, David Livingstone tracked down the Lake Malawi population.

In 1935, a new genus of mbunas was identified in Lake Malawi, and its adjacent regions are known as Melanochromis.

In 1965, the Lake Malawi species was the first of its genus to be introduced into fishkeeping. This cichlid radiation remained dominant for six years until Tanganyika and Victoria species became available in the mid-1970s.

Since then, the fast adaptive radiation of African cichlids continued to grow in the 1980s and 1990s as new species were revealed.

Unfortunately, this resulted in wild populations of certain kinds falling. However, with captive breeding efforts in the 1990s and 2000s, many species that had been dwindling were revived.

What Are the Classifications of African Cichlids?

Now that we know a little bit more about African cichlids let’s look at the different classifications of these fish.

Lake Tanganyika

The Lake Tanganyika wild cichlids fish species come from the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. This gorgeous body of water is located on Africa’s west side near the Great Rift Valley. It’s crystal clear and has a high pH level due to its limestone composition, which is also rich in minerals.

Therefore, if you want to successfully breed fish from Lake Tanganyika, use alkaline hard water. The most common types include Tropheus, Frontosa, Neolamprologus, Astatotilapia burtoni, etc.

Astatotilapia burtoni

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi cichlids live in the southernmost section of the Great Rift Valley in the East African region, as well as Lake Tan. Unfortunately, Lake Tan is very murky due to high winds and rocks crumbling into it.

The water in Lake Malawi is clear and has a high pH level, making it ideal for breeding eastern African cichlid fish such as African Butterfly cichlids, Electric Blue African cichlids, Astatotilapia calliptera, and other fish.

Also, there are several other breeds of Lake Malawi cichlids, including the Bumblebee cichlid, Demasoni cichlid, Venustus cichlid, Yellow Lab cichlid, Peacock cichlid, and so on.

Bumblebee Cichlid

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria’s cichlids are found in central Africa in the continent’s biggest lake. Some famous strains of this intraspecific level include Kenya Gold cichlids and Christmas Fulu.

What Are the Common Types of African Cichlids?

Understanding the different African cichlid species will help you decide which ones are best for your aquarium.

Here are the most popular African cichlid breeds:

  • Maingano: The hues in this group range from blue to navy and include a variety of bright horizontal stripes
  • Zebra Mbuna, aka Zebra cichlids: As their name suggests, these fish have black and white stripes running vertically down their long bodies
  • Orange Zebra: These fish have orange bodies, and they are covered in black stripes or spots. They can grow to be about five inches long and are very aggressive.
  • Compressiceps: The “Malawi Eyebiter” is an aggressive fish that gets its name from its long, thin body and shiny silver color
  • Electric Yellow: The Electric Yellow cichlid is a peaceful fish that can be kept by inexperienced tank owners, unlike its relatives. This fish is just three inches long and has dark fin tips and a lengthy dorsal fin down the back.
  • Peacock Cichlids: The Peacock cichlid, also called Aulonocara nyassae, is a unique type of fish that ranges in colors from dark tan to silvery blue. These bottom feeders are known for being slightly more aggressive than other types of cichlids.
  • Sunshine Peacock: These fish are perfect for new hobbyists because they are moderately aggressive and resilient. Also, they have a beautiful mix of yellow and blue colors.
  • Hap (short for “Haplochromis”): Haps are one of the most common cichlid types that prefer swimming in open water. They have a medium aggression level, feeding on smaller fish. Further, female haps are duller in color than males.
  • Electric Blue Hap: These orange-flowered, blue-humped fish (also known as the Hap Ahli) are easy to care for and have a bright and solid blue color. Blue Haps don’t get along well with Peacock cichlids, so keep them apart if you want them to live in peace.
  • Kribensis (“kribs,” for short): They are the smallest of all the cichlids measuring three to four inches long. They are less violent and are ideal for beginners.
  • Blue Dolphin Moorii: Many find this fish appealing because of its iridescent blue scales. They can reach 9 or 10 inches long at their full size, making them a little more high-maintenance in terms of housing as they need a larger tank than most other fish.
  • Butterfly: These cichlids are distinguishable by their vertical black stripes. They tend to be pretty calm, which allows them to coexist with other fish types.
  • Buffalo Head: Other names for these creatures include “Humphead,” “Lionhead,” and “Blockhead,” referring to their prominent foreheads. They tend to be more peaceful than others, and they grow to about 4.5 inches in length)
  • Mbuna (Malawi cichlids): Male and female mbunas are both brightly colored and tend to be aggressive. Plus, they live in herds near rocky areas and prefer eating plants.
  • Giraffe: The Giraffe cichlid (otherwise known as the Venustus) is a fish that sports a blue face with dark spots, similar to a giraffe. Also, these fish can grow up to ten inches. Moreover, they’re very sensitive to nitrate levels, making more hard to care for them.

African Cichlids Behavior

Many people love cichlids for their beautiful body color, but few know they are opportunists and predators. Some hide among the rocks, some bury themselves in the sand, and some even pretend to be dead.

As they can be very aggressive, many people cannot continue breeding them. However, the active nature of these fish makes them interesting to watch. They’re never just sitting around; there’s always something going on!

This is why you should take your time in choosing the right African cichlid for your aquarium. You wouldn’t want to put a peaceful fish in with a bunch of predators or vice versa.

Also, African cichlids are always ravenous. Even if you feed them well, they will continue to swim about and investigate any slight movement in the water if it means food.

Another feature of these fish is that they are only vicious during mating season. They’ve been observed to kill other lesser fish during that time when all of their social vibes evaporate, and they become bloodthirsty.

However, you can minimize the impact of their aggressiveness by providing hiding places for other fish. These might be old toy pirate ships or rocks with holes that allow smaller fish to hide.

Lastly, these fish are always on the go and actively looking for food, so don’t be surprised if you find holes in the ground. Unless you have placed some objects inside the tank that can damage them, this shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.

What Is the General Appearance of African Cichlids?

The difference between African cichlid babies and adults is vast. After three months to a year, they will develop into their final form and begin coloring.

They come in various hues, including blue, red, yellow, green, and purple. They have unique designs, such as a crimson fish with white polka dots or a blue fish with yellow stripes. Some types may even alter color according to the quality of the aquarium’s water.

Due to a cytogenetic study, the diversity of cichlid sex appears when the males become aggressive over the females and attempt to assert dominance by displaying vibrant colors on their scales during the breeding season.

What Is the Lifespan of African Cichlids?

The lifespan of the species varies. Some survive for as little as 3 to 4 years, while others may live up to 8 to 10 years as long as you provide them with good care.

The main factor in their lifespan is their environment and whether it meets their needs for temperature, plants, space, and rocks. A clean tank with proper African cichlid food will also help them live a long and healthy life.

What Is an African Cichlid’s Adult Size?

african cichlid fish

The size of fully-grown African cichlids can range from 2 to 12 inches, depending on the type. The longest ones are big-mouth haps, while multies are the smallest species.

African Cichlid Tank Setup

Water Cycling

African cichlids are very sensitive to nitrate levels, so it’s important to properly cycle your tank before adding any fish. This process can take anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks, so be patient!

To cycle your tank, you’ll need to add gravel from an established aquarium and a small amount of fish food. The bacteria that grow on the gravel will help to break down the ammonia to nitrite and then nitrate.

During this process, you’ll need to test the water quality often and do regular water changes to keep the ammonia and nitrite levels low. Once the nitrate level rises, you can add your African cichlids!

When it comes to water changes, you should perform a small one (10-15%) every week and a larger one (30-50%) every month. This will help keep the water quality high and prevent high taxonomic levels that could stress out your fish.

Water Temperature

These guys dwell in pretty warm waters and enjoy basking in the sun. For African cichlids, the ideal water temperature is between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you live in a cooler climate, you may need an aquarium heater to maintain this temperature. Alternatively, you can place your tank near a window where it will receive some natural sunlight.

However, I don’t recommend placing it in direct sunlight as this can cause the water to overheat, harming your fish. To keep track of the temperature, I recommend getting an aquarium thermometer.

Water pH & Hardness

In fact, these two factors are so important that I’m going to talk about them separately.

African cichlids prefer a water pH of 7.8–8.6, which is on the alkaline side. In case you’re unfamiliar, pH measures how acidic or alkaline the water is. A lower pH means the water is more acidic, while a higher pH means it’s more alkaline.

Also, they prefer hard water, which has high mineral content. The hardness of the water is measured in degrees of hardness (dGH), with African cichlids preferring a hardness of 12–30 dGH.

If the pH or hardness of your water isn’t within this range, you can use a water conditioner to adjust it. To ensure that the conditioner is effective, I recommend testing the water before and after using it.

Tank Size

As I mentioned, African cichlids can range in size from 2 to 12 inches and exhibit different behaviors. For example, some are more aggressive than others, while some prefer to live in groups.

Because of this, you’ll need to choose a tank size appropriate for the number and type of African cichlids you want to keep.

As a result, you should provide fish at least six inches long with a minimum of 30 gallons of aquarium space. However, fish under six inches long can live in a 20-gallon tank.

If you’re looking to add more fish to your aquarium, experts recommend adding an extra three gallons of water for each additional fish. Also, remember that your fish will grow over time, so it’s important to factor in the size of adult cichlids when planning your initial tank setup.

Tank Lid

Because African cichlids are such active swimmers, they need a tank with a tight-fitting lid. This will prevent them from jumping out of the tank and reduce evaporation.

If your tank doesn’t have a lid, you can purchase one at your local pet store or online. I recommend getting a glass or acrylic lid slightly larger than the tank to ensure a snug fit.


All kinds of filtrations systems will work for African cichlids as long as they’re powerful enough to filter the entire volume of water in the tank at least once per hour.

You can choose a hang-on-back (HOB) filter, a canister filter, or a sponge filter. I personally prefer HOB filters because they’re relatively easy to set up and maintain.

However, for a large tank, you will need over-filtration in the form of twin filtration. Two canister filters will suffice for aquariums larger than 90 gallons.

In addition, you can use a sponge filter as a supplemental form of filtration. African cichlids are known to be messy eaters, so having a sponge filter will help to keep the water clean and prevent ammonia and nitrite buildup.

If you use sand substrate, avoid undergravel filters because they tend to get clogged quickly.

Besides, the filter you select should improve aquarium aeration. Even though cichlids typically avoid the upper water levels where the most oxygen is present, proper aeration is still essential. Further, the ideal filter shouldn’t produce strong currents.


When you move to a new home, one of the first things you do is personalize your space to make it feel like your own. The same goes for African cichlids and their aquariums.

These fishy buddies need an environment where they feel at home, safe, and comfortable. To recreate these African waters in your home, you’ll need to add some decorations to the tank.

They prefer a rocky environment with plenty of hiding places. Rocks and caves provide them with a sense of security and help to reduce stress levels.

However, be careful to avoid using sharp objects that could injure your cichlids. Also, avoid using treated wood, as the chemicals can leach into the water and harm your fish.


African cichlids like to nibble on plants or uproot them altogether. Therefore, you should avoid any plants with delicate leaves or stems.

Some African cichlid-friendly plants include Java Moss, Java Fern, Anubias, and Hornwort. These plants are all tough enough to withstand African cichlid antics and provide your fish with some much-needed shelter.

Also, the Jungle Val is an excellent aquatic plant to keep in your fish tank as it will do well regardless of the conditions. It has tough roots but will grow more optimally in the sand instead of gravel.


The natural environment of African cichlids is full of limestone, which makes the water highly alkaline. Therefore, the substrate you pick for your aquarium should have a buffering effect on the water to keep it above the pH levels common in freshwater aquariums.

They will be most comfortable in a substrate of crushed coral or sand because they live buried within the substrate. If they burrow into harsh or rough substrates, it might injure them. Also, sand is smooth and makes a good option, but it might not be best for your aquatic plants.

Additionally, silica is a favorite with aquarists who keep African cichlids. This smooth sand substrate is an attractive option that doesn’t break the bank.

If you are looking for something that will disguise waste and debris, Tahitian Moon Sand might be right for you. As an added bonus, its dark color can give your setup a touch of elegance.

Other popular substrates for African cichlids include Black Beauty and Play Sand. Contrarily, I do not recommend gravel because it can be sharp and increase the probability that your pet will become injured.


African cichlids prefer dim lighting because it makes them feel more comfortable. They are used to being in murky waters, so excessively bright light will only stress them out.

Use full-spectrum LED bulbs to find the perfect lighting for your African cichlid aquarium. These bulbs provide a natural-looking light that won’t disturb your fish.

African Cichlid Tank Mates

African cichlids are not the best community fish because they can be aggressive, territorial, and nippy. Keeping them alone or with other African cichlids is best unless you have a very large tank.

If you decide to keep these cichlids with other fish, keep them away from small, delicate fish. African cichlids might view these fish as potential food items and try to eat them.

Some African cichlid-friendly tank mates include:

  • Other similarly-sized African cichlids
  • African catfish
  • A. Burtoni
  • Plecos
  • Red Tail sharks
  • Rainbow sharks
  • Zebra loaches
  • Giant danios

African Cichlid Diet & Feeding

African cichlids’ dietary needs vary depending on the species. They can be either omnivorous, herbivores, or carnivores, so it’s important to do your research before you purchase them.

If they are herbivores, they will need a diet consisting of vegetables and algae. You can purchase African cichlid pellets containing all the necessary nutrients or feed them blanched vegetables like zucchini, cucumber, and squash.

However, omnivores will need a diet consisting of meat and plants. You should give them live or frozen foods like brine shrimp, krill, bloodworms, and veggie pellets.

Last, if your cichlids are carnivores, they will only need a meat diet. You can give them live or frozen foods like brine shrimp, krill, and bloodworms. You should also consider giving them pellets that are made specifically for carnivores.

When it comes to feeding frequency, you should feed your African cichlids twice a day. Give them as much food as they can eat in 3 minutes, and then remove any uneaten food.

African Cichlids Breeding

When you breed African cichlids, you should do it in a separate tank with similar water conditions to their regular tank. Also, the breeding tank should have plenty of hiding spots because they can be aggressive during breeding.

Depending on the species, some fish are able to mate with members of different species (cross-breeding). To ensure that the chosen fish can breed, opt for mature individuals.

When they begin to mate, the female will lay her eggs on a flat surface like a rock or piece of wood. After she lays the eggs, the male will fertilize them.

After the eggs are fertilized, your fish will either lay their eggs in a secure cave/tank cavity or keep them in their mouth for about 21 days (mouthbrooding).

At this stage, watch for aggression since your fish may attempt to consume the larvae on rare occasions. In this situation, the eggs must be housed in a separate “breeding” aquarium. The fry hatch after 14 days.

African Cichlid Common Diseases

African cichlids are susceptible to the same diseases as other fish but also prone to a few specific diseases.

Some of the most common African cichlid diseases include:

Malawi Bloat

Malawi Bloat usually affects fish that eat organic matter. If your fish suffer from Malawi Bloat, you may notice abdominal inflammation, rapid breathing, lack of appetite, lethargy, and discolored feces.

In severe cases, Malawi Bloat will harm the liver and kidneys. The first step in treating Malawi Bloat is to perform a water change and administer Metronidazole to the tank.

Hole-in–The Head Disease

This disease is caused by a parasite called Hexamita, bad water quality, and mineral imbalance. It’s mostly expressed by a sunken head, loss of appetite, and weight.

Also, the affected cichlid can develop lesions on the lateral line, eventually attracting systemic infections.


Fish tuberculosis is a serious and often deadly condition that can quickly kill all of the fish in an aquarium. Also, this disease is risky for humans, as it can be contracted through open wounds or sores.

If you think your pet fish may have this condition, look for symptoms such as lethargy, white blotches on the skin, loss of appetite, and frayed fins.

Cotton Wool Disease

This disease is characterized by fuzzy white growths on the scales, head, and fins. It occurs when a naturally-occurring fungus in tank water becomes amplified due to poor water quality.

If there is uneaten food waste and decaying organic matter in an aquarium, your fish are more prone to fungal infections. Cotton wool disease is highly transmissible, and you can prevent it by maintaining good water conditions.

How Much Do African Cichlids Cost?

You can find African cichlids at many different in-person and online stores. The price you pay for one of these fish will largely depend on the species you’re interested in.

On average, most people spend between $6 and $30 per African cichlid. A few popular online stores that sell these fish are:

  • LiveAquaria offers more than 30 African cichlid species, such as Red Zebra cichlids, Blue Peacock cichlids, and Frontosa cichlids.
  • Aquatic Arts also sell over 30 African cichlids, including African Fire cichlids, Lemon cichlids, and Black Diamond cichlids.

Are African Cichlids Suitable for Beginners?

African cichlids are difficult to keep due to their aggressive nature and special care requirements. Therefore, they are only recommended for experienced fish keepers.

Starting with a less aggressive and easier-to-care-for fish species is best if you’re a beginner.


What’s the Best Algae Eater for the African Cichlid Aquarium?

The best algae eater for the African cichlid aquarium is the Bristlenose pleco. This fish is a good choice because it’s peaceful, doesn’t grow too large, and is tolerant of many water conditions.

Are Bumblebee Cichlids Mouth Brooders?

Bumblebee cichlids are mouth brooders. This means the female will carry the eggs and fry in her mouth until they’re ready to be released into the tank.

Do African Cichlids Prefer Sand or Gravel?

African cichlids prefer sand because it’s softer on their bodies than gravel. Also, sand provides a more natural environment for these fish to live in.

How Many African Cichlids Can I Put in a 55-Gallon Tank?

You can keep up to 10-20 African cichlids in a 55-gallon tank.

Do Cichlids Need Light at Night?

African cichlids do not need light at night. In fact, it’s best to turn the lights off in the tank after the sun goes down so your fish can rest.

Last Words

African cichlids are one of the most popular types of aquarium fish. They come in various colors and patterns, making them a beautiful addition to any home aquarium.

However, African cichlids are also aggressive and require special care, so they’re not suitable for everyone. If you’re thinking about adding African cichlids to your tank, research and ensure you’re prepared to provide them with the care they need.

I hope you found this African cichlid care guide helpful. If you have any questions or would like to share your own African cichlid care tips, please leave a comment below.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.