Nicaragua Cichlid: Care, Diet, and Habitat Insights

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton


Nicaragua Cichlid

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The Nicaragua cichlid is sometimes also known as the ‘Macaw Cichlid’. Why? These cichlids have the potential to be some of the most colorful members of the family.

To see them in their full glory, however, ‘Nics’ need to be kept in excellent condition. Because they are aggressive fish that require a specialist tank set up to thrive, I’d recommend Nicaragua cichlids for advanced aquarists only.

Nicaragua Cichlid at a Glance

Nicaragua Cichlid Info
Other Common NamesMoga Cichlid, Macaw Cichlid, Nickie, Parrot Cichlid, Macaw Cichlid, Butterfly Cichlid, Nicaraguense, Nicaraguan Cichlid
Scientific NamesCichlasoma balteatum, C. nicaraguense, C. spilotum, Copora nicaraguensis, Herichthys nicaraguensis, Heros balteatus, H. nicaraguensis
OriginNicaragua and Costa Rica
Maximum SizeMales 10 inches, Female 8 inches
Tank Size75 Gallons+ for a pair
Water Temperature76-82°F
Water ParameterspH: 7.0-8.0, dGH: 10-20
Care LevelAdvanced
FeedingOmnivorous. Include plant matter and meaty foods

Species Overview

Origin and Background

As their name suggests, Nicaragua cichlids hail from Nicaragua but they also inhabit parts of Costa Rica. They live in slow-moving rivers and lakes in their natural range, including Lake Nicaragua.

In the wild, these inhabit waters with a soft substrate, often clay. They love to dig, so a soft substrate in the aquarium is essential for these fish.

While some ‘Nics’ for sale are captive-bred, others are wild-caught. Some people argue that wild-caught specimens have brighter colors, while captive-bred fish may be better adapted to aquarium conditions.

Size and Appearance

Nicaraguan cichlids are large fish, with males growing up to 12 inches in length, and females growing to a maximum of 10 inches in the wild. However, 10 inches for males and 8 inches for females is more typical in a home aquarium.

Do a quick image search for Nicaraguan cichlids and you’ll discover they vary considerably in color. Each individual’s color can change significantly during the course of their lives, or even according to their mood or breeding status.

Because male and female Nicaragua cichlids look quite different, I’ll describe their appearance separately. Suffice it to say these are extremely handsome fish, sometimes compared to rainbow cichlids.

Sexual Dimorphism

Besides males being significantly larger than females there are several other differences between sexes.

Unusually for a cichlid, females are more colorful than males. At their best, they have a bright, sky-blue head with the rest of the body being golden yellow with tinges of red. These beautiful colors have led some cichlid enthusiasts to dub this fish the ‘Macaw cichlid’ after the colorful parrots.

Females also retain the black lateral line from gills to tail throughout their lives, whereas this line fades to a small black spot in mature males.

As with many other cichlids, males develop an enlarged forehead known as ‘nuchal hump’ which is lacking in females. As well as being generally duller in color, males don’t tend to develop any red patches like females do.

Despite all these differences at maturity, Nicaraguan cichlids are difficult if not impossible to sex when they’re young! It can be difficult to know if you’re getting male or female fish if they’re still juvenile fish when purchased.

One of the earliest indicators of sex is the red pigments developing in females which are lacking in males.

Nicaragua Cichlid Care Guide

Tank Size

Because they grow into big fish, Nicaragua cichlids need a large tank. A single specimen would require a 55-gallon aquarium, whereas a pair would need a 75-gallon tank.

If you wish to keep these territorial fish with several other South American cichlids, a tank of at least 110 gallons is necessary.

Tank Environment

Plants and Decor

Because Nicaragua cichlids are enthusiastic diggers and like to nibble plants from time to time, growing live plants in their tank can be challenging!

They will really appreciate some live plants though, and these can also help to keep nitrates low – a necessary requirement for this species.

Plants that you can tie to driftwood such as Java fern, Java moss, and Anubias are good options as plants grown this way can’t be uprooted so easily.

Some floating plants like Amazon frogbit, water lettuce, and water sprite could also make good choices.

Because ‘Nics’ love to hide, and form specific territories within the tank, some large caves where they can take refuge will be appreciated. Pieces of driftwood and ceramic plant pots also make appropriate décor.


Because of their digging habits, Nicaragua cichlids really need a deep, soft, sandy substrate to feel at home. This is especially important during breeding time when these fish will dig deep pits to lay their eggs.

Sand substrates are more difficult to grow plants in and to clean, and sand can also get stuck in aquarium filters when it’s thrown up into the water from digging fish.

In short, sand substrates are more tricky than gravel – one of the reasons why this fish is recommended for advanced fish keepers only.

Water Temperature

Nicaragua cichlids are tropical fish that require a reliable aquarium heater. They will accept a range of water temperatures, from 76-82°F, so are compatible with most other cichlids from Central America in this way.

Water Parameters

Unlike their black water relatives from South America, Central American cichlids prefer neutral to slightly alkaline water. For Nicaragua cichlids, a pH of 7-8 is ideal, but they should also tolerate a pH down to 6.5.

As for water hardness, aim for a dGH between 12-20.


One of the most important factors for keeping Nicaragua cichlids healthy is excellent water quality and high oxygen levels – so a good aquarium filter is essential.

Powerful hang-on-back filters and internal power filters are okay for tanks up to 75 gallons, but for larger aquariums, a canister filter is preferable.

While a high filter turnover is essential to keep the water clean, Nicaragua 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 evenly.


Nicaragua cichlids are omnivorous with a penchant for plenty of plant matter in their diet. A varied diet is one of the keys to keeping them in optimum health and displaying their most vibrant colors.

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

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But dried fish foods should always be supplemented with plant-based foods and meaty treats: high-protein fresh and frozen foods such as bloodworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, Mysis shrimp, chopped prawns, and mosquito larvae will be relished.

Vegetable foods like blanched organic spinach, dandelion, and nettle leaves, plus nori flakes, or spirulina wafers will also be greatly appreciated, and may reduce this fish eating your aquarium plants!

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

Behavior and Tank Mates


Perhaps the biggest consideration for keeping Nicaragua cichlids is their fiery temperament.

Like other Central American cichlids, ‘Nics’ can be highly aggressive towards other fish, especially at breeding time. Because they’re also large fish, they can inflict significant damage to others and may eat smaller tank mates such as tetras.

Aggression issues will depend a lot on whether you’re keeping a single specimen, a breeding pair, or several Nicaragua cichlids.

Should You Keep Nicaragua Cichlid Alone, in a Pair, or in a Group?

Nicaragua Cichlid

The good news is that, when they’re not breeding, female Nicaragua cichlids are much less aggressive than males. Since females are also more colorful, some fish keepers simply keep a single female on her own to avoid aggression issues.

But while some claim their lone females seem perfectly content when kept with other fish species, others would argue this is rather cruel for an intelligent fish with complex interaction behavior within the species. This is something for you to decide for yourself.

The trouble with keeping a pair is that the male can become very aggressive towards the female if she doesn’t accept his advances. If the pair do begin to breed, they’ll both become highly aggressive towards their tank mates.

Because they could inflict injuries on their neighbors, I’d advise only keeping a breeding pair in a species-only tank. Problems can arise if you remove them from their fry too early on, so temporary small breeding tanks are not a wise option.

While juvenile Nicaragua cichlids can be kept together in groups to see who will pair off, adults shouldn’t be kept in schools since they will often fight fiercely with one another.

Compatible Tank Mates

As you’ll now understand, Nicaragua cichlid tank mates need to be tough and large enough to survive their moody temperament!

If keeping a lone female, then other peaceful to semi-aggressive cichlids like convict cichlids, firemouth cichlids, Jack Dempsey cichlids, Severum cichlids, rainbow cichlids, blue acara cichlids, and chocolate cichlids should make fine choices.

Bottom-dwelling fish like plecos, loaches, and cories often get a hard time when sharing a tank with cichlids, and ‘Nics’ are also known for eating aquarium shrimp and snails!

I’d advise caution when considering tank mates for a breeding pair of these fish, and urge you to consider that a species-only aquarium might be a safer bet.

Health and Disease

Nicaragua cichlids demand excellent water quality 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.

Another ailment that cichlids sometimes suffer from is ‘hole in the head disease’ (HLLE). Once again, this is generally attributed to poor aquarium water quality and stress.

Keeping Nicaragua cichlids in a large enough tank with sensible tank mates and plenty of hiding places, is, therefore, the best defense against stress and unnecessary diseases.


‘Nics’ are substrate spawners, but unusually for a cichlid species, their eggs are not adhesive. In the wild, these fish would dig a very deep pit or tunnel from the clay in the river bank to keep their eggs from being washed away by the current.

In an aquarium, eggs can easily be dislodged and swept away by the filter current unless the fish are allowed to dig a very deep pit. This is one reason why a deep, sandy substrate is essential.

Key Points:

  • The parents will guard the eggs and young fiercely and are likely to charge any other fish that comes too close.
  • At spawning time, the parent fish will display brighter colors. The male may chase the female around the tank prior to spawning.
  • Up to 400 eggs are laid in the pit and are fertilized externally. Eggs take 3-4 days to hatch and a further 3 days to become free swimming.
  • Feed the young on baby brine shrimp, microworms, and occasional helpings of crushed flake food.
  • Parents should not be removed from their young for at least a few weeks after they’re free-swimming to avoid the parents trying to spawn immediately again. For these reasons, a species-only tank is recommended for breeding.
  • Interestingly, the female will sometimes lay eggs without the presence of a male.


Like other large cichlids, ‘Nics’ can live for a long time when kept in good condition. Experienced fish keepers should be aiming for 10-15 years with these fish.

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

Tank Maintenance

Some top tips for keeping your Nicaragua cichlids in tip-top condition!

  • Feed a diverse, healthy diet that includes regular additions of live or frozen foods and vegetable foods. Avoid overfeeding!
  • Install a powerful filter and clean it regularly, but avoid strong currents.
  • Vacuum your substrate and make partial water changes of 15-35% every 1-2 weeks with treated water of matching temperature.
  • 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 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

Remember that Nicaragua cichlids may be marketed under many different names, such as Moga Cichlid, Macaw Cichlid, Nickie Cichlid, Parrot Cichlid, Macaw Cichlid, Butterfly Cichlid and Nicaraguense Cichlid.

Fish for sale may be captive-bred or from wild stocks. While wild fish are said to be more colorful, this is a generalization and may not always be true. Captive-bred fish are also often better adapted to aquarium conditions than wild-caught fish.

If you’re buying your fish from a store, only choose active individuals, with bright colors, shiny eyes, and healthy-looking fins. If you’re buying online, always check reviews to ensure the site’s integrity.

Expect to pay anything between $10 to $50 per fish depending on their size and origin.

Final Thoughts

The Nicaragua cichlid is an extremely beautiful Central American cichlid. Their bright colors and beautiful shape may seem alluring, but these fish can also be highly aggressive, especially when breeding.

Because they require a specialist tank setup, I’d only recommend Nicaragua cichlids for advanced fish keepers, with a large tank, and plenty of experience in keeping cichlids.

If you’re fairly new to the world of cichlids, I’d strongly advise starting off with easier, but still very beautiful species like kribensis, ram cichlids, and rainbow cichlids.

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