Chocolate Cichlid: Habits, Habitats, Appearance, and Diet

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton

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Chocolate Cichlid

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Chocolate cichlids, otherwise known as ‘emerald cichlids’ are a lesser-known but intriguing large South American cichlid.

Sometimes compared to Severum cichlids or Oscars, chocolate cichlids are either gentle giants or moody monsters depending on who you ask!

While chocolate cichlids are not the best choice for first-time cichlid keepers, advanced aquarists might find this a fascinating species to keep and breed.

Let’s unravel the mysteries of keeping the chocolate cichlid, an enigmatic titan of the cichlid world!

Chocolate Cichlid at a Glance

Chocolate Cichlid Info
Other Common NamesEmerald Cichlid, Emerald Chocolate Cichlid, Chocolate Emerald Cichlid
Scientific NamesHypselecara temporalis, Acara crassa, Cichlasoma crassum, C. hellabrunni, C. temporale, Heros goeldii
DistributionBrazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru.
Maximum Size12 inches (30cm) – but usually smaller in aquariums
Tank SizeAt least 75 gallons for a pair
Temperature77-84°F
Water ParametersSoft and acidic: pH: 5.0-7.0, dGH: up to 20 degrees
TemperamentPeaceful to boisterous, depending on the individual
Tank MatesLarge, robust, peaceful
LightingSubdued
Sexual DimorphismMales grow larger and develop a nuchal hump
FeedingOmnivorous, need a varied diet

Species Overview

Origin and Background

In the wild, chocolate cichlids are a very widespread South American fish. Found in slow-moving, rivers, tributaries, and flood plains in Brazil, Peru, Columbia, and Venezuela, these rivers often have a silty substrate and ‘black water’ – which we’ll discuss later.

Chocolate cichlid bloodlines in today’s aquarium trade have been captured from various locations and there can be regional differences between fish.

Most fish in the aquarium trade today are said to be captive bred either in Asia or in Florida, but wild-caught fish are still marketed as well.

Size and Appearance

Chocolate cichlids are large aquarium fish. In the wild or large aquariums, they can occasionally reach 12 inches in length, although 8-10 inches is more normal in most domestic fish tanks.

An attractive trait of the chocolate cichlid is the way they keep changing color. Specimens can sometimes change from chocolate-brown to emerald-green, to golden-yellow in a single day! Their colors will change according to their mood and breeding status, as well as the time of day.

As well as these main colors, chocolate cichlids often have black stripes or patches on their sides, in the same way that keyhole cichlids and rainbow cichlids do.

Similar in shape to discus and severum cichlids, chocolate cichlids have a very laterally compressed, round body shape that’s pleasing to the eye.

See the ‘Sexual dimorphism’ for notes on differences between male and female fish.

Chocolate Cichlid Care Guide

Tank Size

Because they mature into big fish, chocolate cichlids require a large aquarium. While some people have kept them as single fish, I’d always recommend keeping sociable cichlids in pairs.

A single pair will require a 75-gallon tank at the very least. Tanks bigger than 120 gallons are recommended if you wish to keep them with other cichlids.

Tank Environment

Chocolate cichlids will be happiest when you replicate their natural habitat within your fish tank.

Plants and Decor

Coming from silty, slow-moving black water rivers and floodplains, these fish enjoy fairly still water with plenty of plants, pieces of driftwood, and rocks and caves to hide among.

Although they don’t tend to dig as much as other cichlids like Oscars and earth eaters, aquarium plants still need to be tough enough to survive occasional root disturbance.

Plants such as Java fern, Java moss, and Anubias that can be tied to driftwood are difficult to dislodge and make ideal choices for this fish.

Tannins

Their native habitat is known as ‘black water’ because the water is stained a dark amber color from the presence of dissolved tannins. Tannins are released from materials such as driftwood, fallen tree leaves, and peat and turn the water softer and more acidic.

By adding Indian almond leaves, aquarium-safe peat, or untreated hardwood such as beech and oak to the tank, tannins are released into the water. Imbuing it with an amber hue, the tannins adjust the water chemistry in favor of ‘black water fish’ like chocolate cichlids.

Important tip!: If you do wish to create a black water aquarium, you’ll need to remove your carbon filter, to prevent it from removing the tannins from the water.

Substrate

Because chocolate cichlids naturally inhabit soft-bottomed rivers and tributaries, some aquarium experts advise keeping them on a sandy substrate.

But while sand is closer to their native environment, it also makes it harder to establish healthy plant growth and is more difficult to clean.

While they do dig somewhat when spawning, I’d advise that keeping them on fine-grained, smooth gravel would also suffice in most situations.

Lighting

The tannin-stained blackwaters that chocolate cichlids hail from let less light penetrate than clear water, and they also often reside under the shade of overhanging trees.

For these reasons, chocolate cichlids naturally prefer lighting that’s subdued, but still bright enough for healthy aquarium plant growth.

One great way to create both dappled shade and abundant plant foliage is to include floating plants such as Amazon frogbit, water sprite, or water lettuce.

Tight-Fitting Tank Lid!

Because they’re powerful fish that can sometimes jump to catch insects flying above the water, make sure your tank has a tight-fitting lid, and don’t leave it open during maintenance.

To see what happens when a fly gets inside a chocolate cichlid tank, check out this entertaining video!

Water Temperature

Chocolate cichlids are warm water fish that prefer temperatures of between 77 – 84°F, therefore a good aquarium heater with a reliable thermostat is essential.

Like other tropical species, chocolate cichlids are sensitive to sudden changes in water temperature, so acclimatizing them properly in a new tank and avoiding temperature fluctuations is crucial to avoid thermal shock.

Water Parameters

Chocolate cichlids come from soft, acidic waters, so these water conditions need to be replicated in captivity. A pH between 5-7 is ideal, with a water hardness of 5-20 dGH.

If your water is harder and more alkaline than this, you could try adding materials containing tannins as described above.

Alternatively, look into keeping African cichlids which positively love hard, alkaline water conditions!

Filtration

One of the most important factors for keeping chocolate cichlids healthy is excellent water quality – so a good aquarium filter is essential.

Powerful hang-on-back filters and internal power filters are okay for 75-gallon tanks, but for larger aquariums, consider a canister filter.

While a high filter turnover is essential to keep the water clean, chocolate cichlids hate strong water currents. You can overcome this issue by installing an aquarium spray bar, or lily pipe to redistribute the water flow more gently.

Feeding

Chocolate cichlids are omnivorous and unfussy in their eating habits so will accept almost any type of dried tropical fish food, frozen or live foods, and plant and algae-based foods.

Quality cichlid pellets such as Hikari Gold have proven to be extremely popular with cichlid keepers around the world for years.

Hikari Cichlid Gold Floating Pellets Large

Hikari Cichlid Gold Floating Pellets Large is a premium fish food designed specifically for cichlids, a popular and diverse group of aquarium fish. These pellets are known for their high-quality ingredients and optimal nutritional content, making them an excellent choice for promoting the health and vibrancy of your cichlid fish.

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Dried fish foods, however, should always be supplemented with high-protein fresh and frozen foods such as bloodworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, Mysis shrimp, and mosquito larvae.

Many owners have reported that their chocolate cichlids are especially fond of insects, although no single type of food should be fed too often.

Occasional helpings of vegetable foods like blanched organic spinach, nettle, or dandelion leaves, nori flakes, algae wafers, or spirulina wafers will also be appreciated, and are a valuable source of nutrients.

As usual, feed your fish twice a day, with no more than they can eat in 2 minutes to avoid water quality problems.

Chocolate Cichlid Behavior and Tank Mates

Temperament – Are Chocolate Cichlids Aggressive?

There’s much debate as to whether chocolate cichlids are peaceful fish or semi-aggressive fish.

Some aquarists have kept this freshwater fish in community tanks with all kinds of tank mates, including large tetras and rainbow fish without problems.

Others, however, have reported their adult chocolate cichlids have eaten their small fish and are bullying their medium-sized tank mates.

The truth is that like most cichlids, chocolate cichlid temperament can vary wildly between individuals, and can strongly affect their breeding status.

While a pair of female fish may remain quite benevolent towards their tank mates, a breeding pair will become quite territorial and may severely scold other fish who come too close to their eggs or young.

Should You Keep Chocolate Cichlid Alone, in a Pair, or in a School?

Chocolate cichlids are intelligent fish and if you’ve ever watched a pair in courtship, you’ll know how intricate and complex their social behavior is.

Although some aquarists have done it, I think it’d be sad to keep a chocolate cichlid alone.

A breeding pair of chocolate cichlids can provide years of fascinating viewing as they go through their breeding cycles and raise multiple broods together.

However, more than two chocolate cichlids are not recommended in all but the largest aquariums. Although they tend to be more peaceful towards other fish, this fish species is renowned for fighting with other members of their own kind outside of a breeding relationship.

Compatible Tank Mates

As I just mentioned, it’s sometimes possible to keep chocolate cichlids in community tanks, even alongside schooling fish like large tetras – but not always.

Because chocolate cichlids are capable of bullying and even eating smaller fish, I’d advise not keeping them alongside tetras, rasboras, or guppies.

Medium-sized barbs like tiger barbs and cherry barbs make better choices, as do silver sharks, hatchet fish, and perhaps some larger gouramis.

Some people have successfully kept chocolate cichlids alongside other medium-large cichlids such as angelfish, severums, discus, fire mouth cichlids, and rainbow cichlids. This is more of a risky combination, however, since any breeding cichlid can become aggressive and attack its tank mates if the tank isn’t big enough.

Never keep chocolate cichlids with shrimp, as they’ll soon get eaten! Other cleanup crew species like cory catfish, plecos, and loaches are also prone to getting attacked by a breeding pair.

Well-behaved aquarium snails such as nerite snails are probably your best bet if you’re looking for a robust algae eater to help keep your tank clean. As long as your cichlids don’t develop a taste for them, that is!

Health and Disease

Chocolate cichlids demand excellent quality water and may develop health problems and diseases if water conditions deteriorate or they become stressed.

Ich, velvet, and flukes are all common parasitic diseases that can lie dormant in an aquarium for years until a weakened fish or very poor water quality offers them a chance to strike.

Similarly, bacterial and fungal infections like columnaris and water molds only tend to affect fish that are already in a vulnerable state.

Keeping chocolate cichlids in a tank with subdued lighting, plenty of hiding places, peaceful tank mates, and exceptionally clean water, is, therefore, the best defense against stress and unnecessary diseases.

Sexual Dimorphism

Chocolate cichlids can be very difficult to sex when they’re young.

As they mature, however, males develop more pointed fins, brighter colors, and swollen foreheads known as a ‘nuchal hump’. Mature males also tend to be bigger than female chocolate cichlids.

Breeding

Chocolate cichlids are moderately easy to breed and will often do so without any prompting from the fish keeper!

  • Courtship displays are impressive to watch as the male brightens his colors, shimmies, and flashes his fins in front of the female. The pair may also lock lips prior to mating.
  • As substrate spawners, chocolate cichlids prefer to lay their eggs on a flat rock, so supplying a piece of slate will provide the ideal spawning site.
  • Both parents guard the eggs fiercely. After a couple of days, both female and male fish move the eggs to a pit that they’ve already dug in the substrate.
  • Eggs hatch around 4 days from spawning, and fry are free swimming in a further 3 days.
  • Fry should be fed on baby brine shrimp, microworms, and occasional helpings of crushed flake food.
  • Parents vary greatly in their parental abilities. While some will eat their eggs immediately after spawning, others will care for their young diligently, weeks after spawning.

Lifespan

Like other large South American cichlids, chocolate cichlids can live for over 10 years if kept in ideal conditions.

For them to reach their maximum lifespan, their diet, water quality, and quality of care must be of the highest order.

Tank Maintenance

  • Some top tips for keeping your chocolate cichlid in tip-top condition!
  • Feed a diverse, healthy diet that includes regular additions of live or frozen foods, and vegetable matter. Avoid overfeeding!
  • Get yourself a good filter and clean it every 2-3 weeks.
  • Vacuum your substrate and make partial water changes of 20-35% every 1-2 weeks with treated water of matching temperature. It’s essential to keep nitrates below 20 ppm!
  • Get yourself a reliable heater and thermometer. Make daily checks to ensure the temperature is within the ideal range for all of your fish.
  • Observe all of your fish closely every day to ensure they are in good health and interacting peacefully with each other.
  • Test your aquarium’s water at least once a month or any time your fish seem unwell.

Buying Guide

Because chocolate cichlids aren’t kept as often as the most popular cichlids like angelfish and discus, you won’t find them at every pet store.

Larger, specialized aquarium stores sometimes stock them, though, as do many online stores. If you’re buying online, always check reviews to ensure the site’s integrity.

Expect to pay between 8-30 US dollars for juvenile chocolate cichlids in 2023.

Final Thoughts

Chocolate cichlids are fascinating fish and keeping them can be an interesting venture for an experienced cichlid enthusiast.

Their large size and unpredictable temperament make them unsuitable for beginners, but thankfully, there are many other wonderful cichlids out there that are easier to keep.

If you’re new to cichlids and are looking for a peaceful species to add to your community tank, I’d highly recommend checking out our care guides to kribensis, ram cichlids, and rainbow cichlids.

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