Full Care Guide for Keyhole Cichlids

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton


Keyhole Cichlids

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The humble keyhole cichlid may be less glamorous than some of its dazzling relatives, but this aquarium relic was once more popular than today, and deservedly so!

Keyhole cichlids are one of the most peaceful cichlids that you could hope to find. They also remain relatively small, so can be kept with medium-sized community tank species without trouble.

Their easy-going nature and fascinating behavior make keyhole cichlids a very underrated fish and a great choice for hobbyists looking to keep their first cichlids.

Keyhole Cichlid at a Glance

Keyhole Cichlids Info
Scientific NameCleithracara maronii
Common NamesKeyhole cichlid, Chameleon Cichlid, Keyhole fish
OriginsNorthern South America
Care LevelOk for beginners with some prior experience
TemperamentPeaceful and timid
ColorVariable and changing from brown, to cream, to white with black bars and patches
LifespanUp to 10 years
SizeMales 4.5 inches, Females 3 inches
DietOmnivore (enjoys meaty treats)
Minimum Tank Size30 gallons
Tank EnvironmentSlow-moving water, dense vegetation, plenty of hiding spots
Tank MatesMedium-sized peaceful fish

Species Overview

Origin and Background

The keyhole cichlid is a peaceful South American cichlid from French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela.

Keyhole cichlids were once more popular in the aquarium trade but have fallen out of fashion due to their more subtle coloration than some other cichlids.

This is a pity because keyhole cichlids are one of the most peaceful and friendly dwarf cichlid varieties that you could hope to keep. While their colors are more subtle, they make up for this with their fabulous character.

Because they’re easily bred in captivity, most stocks in pet stores come from breeding programs rather than wild stocks. This is a plus point since captive-bred fish are much harder and more adaptable than wild-caught fish.

Size and Appearance

Keyhole cichlids tend to be classed as dwarf cichlids, even though males can grow to 4.5 inches long, while females rarely exceed 3 inches in length.

Keyholes have an attractive, round, compressed body, rather like a smaller version of a severum cichlid. This species is known for its muted colors and attractive black stripe that covers its eyes and black spots towards its tail. Fins and eyes can sometimes be a striking reddish color.

The keyhole has also been referred to as the ‘chameleon cichlid’ due to its fascinating ability to change color.

Keyhole cichlids are typically brown, gray, or cream, but can darken their colors at a moment’s notice if a threat appears! You may notice them do this as you approach the aquarium.

Both male and female keyhole cichlids also dramatically change color at breeding time to a stunning white color. The black spots towards their tail also turn into a keyhole-shaped bar, earning them their common name!

Keyhole Cichlid Care Guide

Tank Size

Firstly, it’s important to note that keyhole cichlids should never be kept alone.

A pair needs an aquarium that’s at least 3 feet long, and 30 gallons in volume. A group of 6 or so should be given a 75-gallon aquarium.

Tank Environment

For keyhole cichlids to be happiest, you need to recreate their natural habitat as best you can in your aquarium.

Keyhole cichlids hale from slow-moving streams and tributaries where the water is typically stained amber to brown by tannins. These waterways are often full of pieces of driftwood, tangled tree roots, rocky caves, and aquatic plants, including floating plants.

You can replicate this environment at home by adding pieces of driftwood to the tank. Untreated aquarium-safe hardwoods like beech with the bark peeled are ideal for leaching tannins into the water to create the acidic amber water in which these fish thrive.

Use aquarium-safe rocks to create caves. For breeding, your keyholes will need flat rocks at the bottom of the tank – more on that later.

Keyhole cichlids are normally fine in a planted tank and will rarely dig up or eat live plants. Good choices for aquarium plants include Java fern, Java moss, Amazon Sword, Anubias, Crypts, Anacharis, and Vallisneria.

In their natural environment, keyhole cichlids would also swim among Cabomba and Pistia.


The tannin-stained ‘black water’ that keyhole cichlids naturally reside in allows less light to penetrate than clear water, and their streams are sometimes positioned under the shade of trees. This means keyhole cichlids naturally prefer subdued lighting.

By using tannin-rich materials like driftwood, organic peat, and Indian almond leaves, you can recreate this blackwater effect in your aquarium.

Another interesting way to create subdued lighting is to include some floating plants like Pistia and Amazon frogbit.

Finally, you could also install dimmer aquarium bulbs. Whichever way you choose to subdue the lighting, always take care that there remains enough light for any live plants to grow.

Water Temperature

Keyhole cichlids are tropical fish that require a reliable aquarium heater. They will accept a range of water temperatures, from 76-81°F, so they are compatible with most tropical aquarium fish in this way. Note that while temperatures above 79°F could speed up their biological processes, overly warm temperatures could shorten their lifespan.

Like other tropical species, keyhole cichlids are sensitive to sudden changes in water temperature.

Therefore, acclimatizing them properly to a new tank and avoiding temperature fluctuations is essential to avoid thermal shock.

Water Parameters

Keyhole cichlids are freshwater fish that are quite adaptable in terms of water chemistry. The soft, acidic waters that keyhole cichlids come from in the wild are typically of a pH between 4.5 to 5.5.

Captive-bred keyhole cichlids, however, often grow up in water that’s closer to neutral and can even survive in slightly alkaline water.

The ideal pH range for these hardy fish would be between 5.0 to 7.5, with a water hardness of less than 12dGH. For breeding, however, you’ll need the pH to be between 5.0 to 6.0 and water hardness less than 8dGH.


Perhaps the most crucial aspect to get right in a keyhole cichlid tank is water quality. While they can handle a wide range of water parameters, water quality must be of the highest order for these fish to thrive.

Therefore, an efficient aquarium filter is essential. Powerful hang-on-back filters and internal power filters are good choices for tanks of up to 75 gallons. Beyond that, consider installing a canister filter.

But because they come from slow-moving streams, keyhole cichlids will get stressed by a strong filter current. To maintain a high water turnover without a strong current, you’ll need to install a redistributing device like an aquarium spray bar or lily pipe.

Tank Cycling

Because the keyhole cichlid needs impeccable water quality, it’s extremely important that your aquarium is well-cycled before you add these fish. This also applies to breeding tanks or quarantine tanks that you place them in.

Carry out plenty of water tests in a new tank before adding them to ensure there’s no ammonia or nitrites present, and consider adding hardy fish like tetras first to ensure the water conditions are stable and safe to add your keyhole fish.


Captive-bred keyhole cichlids are unfussy in their eating habits and will accept almost any type of tropical fish food.

Dried foods like flake foods are readily accepted, but dried fish foods should always be supplemented with fresh and frozen meaty foods like bloodworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, mosquito larvae, and mysis shrimp.

If your keyhole cichlids seem keen on eating vegetable matter, you could also feed them on cooked peas, dandelion leaves, blanched nettles, organic spinach or lettuce, nori flakes, and spirulina sinking wafers. Take care not to overfeed with vegetable foods, however, as it could produce a laxative effect.

As usual, feed your fish twice a day, with no more than they can eat in 2 minutes. Overfeeding is one of the most common causes of water quality and health problems in aquarium fish.


Many members of the cichlid family are known for being feisty, aggressive fish, but keyhole cichlids buck this trend by being one of the most peaceful cichlids in the world.

The only time that keyhole cichlids could become a slightly more aggressive species is when they’re breeding. At this time, males may chase females, and the pair may also defend their eggs and young from other fish – especially bottom dwellers like corydoras catfish.

Also, while they’re considered dwarf cichlids, males regularly grow to 4.5 inches, so are large enough to swallow the smallest aquarium members like medaka ricefish, ember tetra, and aquarium shrimp.

Although they’re not truly ‘predatory,’ they may simply see small fish and invertebrates as food items and eat them!


Keyhole cichlids are renowned for being incredibly shy fish who like to spend much of their time hidden away among plants, rocks, and driftwood.

An effective strategy to coax them out of their hiding holes is to add some schooling ‘dither fish’ to the aquarium to make them feel safe.

It seems that if the keyhole cichlid sees other fish, such as large tetras and danios, swimming in open water, they’re more likely to come out themselves!

Be careful not to startle your keyhole cichlids with any sudden movements as these sensitive fish can become easily stressed.

Should Keyhole Cichlids Be Kept Alone, in a Pair, or in a School?

Keyhole cichlids are highly social fish and must never be kept alone. Many aquarists enjoy keeping keyholes as a pair, but groups of 6 or so can look stunning in a larger tank as well.

Compatible Tank Mates

Keyhole Cichlids

First of all, keyhole cichlid tank mates must be peaceful. Your highest priority must be that your keyhole cichlids feel safe and secure in your fish tank.

A school of larger tetras like black skirt tetra, Congo tetra, bleeding heart tetra, penguin tetra, or red-eye tetra can actually make these fish feel safer, as can zebra danios, giant danios, and scissor tails rasboras.

In larger tanks, some fish keepers have kept keyhole cichlids alongside other peaceful dwarf cichlids like kribensis and ram cichlids, although conflicts can arise during breeding time.

Some people have reported keyhole cichlids harassing their corydoras catfish (cory) during breeding time – presumably because bottom-dwellers are seen as a threat to their eggs and young.

If you wish to include bottom-dwellers, only choose larger species of cories, such as bronze cories or hognose cories. Clown loaches and bristlenose plecos could also make good clean-up crew tank mates.

Health and Disease

Keyhole cichlids should remain happy and healthy as long as they’re feeling relaxed, given a varied diet, and their water quality remains high.

If they become stressed for long periods or their water quality plummets, however, they can be susceptible to the same diseases and health conditions of other fish when tank conditions are poor.

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 fin rot, columnaris, and water molds only tend to affect fish that are already in a vulnerable state.

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

Sexual Dimorphism

It’s not possible to distinguish the juvenile keyhole cichlids by sex by appearance alone. However, as they mature, males grow much larger than females. Male keyhole cichlids also develop longer, more pointed dorsal fins and anal fins.


Keyhole cichlids are relatively easy to breed and make a good subject for those looking to breed their first cichlids.

Like many South American cichlids, keyholes like to choose their own mate and will stay together as a pair for many years, if not their entire lives.

While they can be bred in a community tank, keyhole cichlids will become more aggressive towards their tank mates as they protect their eggs and young. They might even command a 2-foot clear space within the aquarium as a breeding territory!

Therefore, a dedicated breeding tank is recommended for the smoothest experience of breeding this fish!

How To Breed Keyhole Cichlids

  • If you’re keeping a group of young keyhole cichlids, let them form pairs and choose the best pair for breeding. Simply putting a male and female together in the same tank will often work, too.
  • Look out for signs of courting. When the female is getting ready to spawn, she’ll become plump with eggs. The pair will also turn a bright white color rather than the normal cream or brown.
  • Set up a 30-gallon breeding tank with soft, acidic water (pH 5 – 6 and dGH less than 8). Add one or more sponge filters to the tank, and some flat rocks for the pair to spawn onto. Some dense plants will also help the parents feel safe and more relaxed for breeding.
  • Move the pair to the breeding tank and wait for spawning. The female will lay many small batches of eggs onto the flat rocks which are then fertilized by the male.
  • When breeding for the first time, keyhole cichlids will often be nervous and eat their own eggs. Don’t worry! They just need practice and will normally get it right on their second or third attempt.
  • Once they’ve learned how to become good parents, females will watch closely over the eggs, fanning them to keep them well-oxygenated. The larger male will patrol the outskirts of their breeding ground on the lookout for danger.
  • After 3-5 days the eggs will hatch. At first, the fry will feed on their egg sacs, before becoming free swimming in a further 3 days or so.
  • The parents will continue to guard their young for up to a few months after spawning. The best food to feed the fry is baby brine shrimp, but frozen baby brine shrimp will also suffice. Ground-up flake food is another option if small meaty foods are unavailable.


Keyhole cichlids are relatively long-lived fish and can sometimes exceed 10 years in a well-maintained aquarium.

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

Tank Maintenance

Here are some top tips for keeping your keyhole cichlid in tip-top condition:

Keyhole Cichlid Buying Guide

As previously mentioned, almost all keyhole cichlids in the trade today have been bred in captivity, but it’s worth checking with your supplier since wild-caught fish are more fussy to keep.

Keyhole cichlids may not be available at your local pet store, but you should be able to find them at larger aquarium stores, as well as from online outlets.

If you buy from a store, only choose active fish with bright eyes, shiny scales, and healthy-looking fins. If you’re buying online, check reviews first to verify the store’s integrity.

Keyhole cichlids are inexpensive, typically costing between $5 to $15 each in 2023.

Final Thoughts

Keyhole cichlids are a very peaceful species of dwarf cichlid that are ideal for fish keepers looking to keep their first cichlids.

Just understand that any type of cichlid is more challenging to keep than your average beginner fish like guppies, bettas, and tetras, so make sure you have some basic fishkeeping experience before attempting keyhole cichlids.

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