A Compete Care Guide About Cichlids (CICHLIDAE)

Cichlids
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Table of Contents

Every aquarist would love to have cichlids in their tank because of their interesting personalities and vivid colors, they can, however, be difficult to keep for beginners as compared to freshwater fish because of their territorial nature and high pH and hardness requirements. The key lies in understanding their lifestyle and dietary requirements. A large cichlid aquarium with enough room to not make them compete with their inhabitants and enough food and good quality equipment to maintain a healthy environment and water parameters will go a long way.

Read on to become an expert on Cichlid care and do reach out for any queries because our website is full of useful content for your needs!

Origin

Given the name Cichlidae in 1835 by the French biologist and ornithologist, Prince Charles Lucien Jules Bonaparte, a member of the royal family and descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte. This family includes five different subfamilies. Namely, Cichlinae, Etroplinae, Heterochromidinae, Pseudocreniliabrinae, and Ptychochrominae. The number of genus and cichlid fish species is numerous. The earliest known fossils were collected in central and South America that experts believe date back to the Eocene period (57-37 million years ago). However, some believe that they arose sometime in the Cretaceous Epoch (144-66.4 million years ago).

South American Cichlids are one of the largest vertebrate families in the animal kingdom, with over 1,650 species that have been officially discovered and named. They are a suborder of the Labroidei order (The largest group of fish). Many new species are annually discovered, not all of which have been formally named and classed. Thus, the species headcount is roughly estimated to be somewhere between 2,000-3,000.

Habitats

Cichlids can be found all over the world, except for North America, Australia, Antarctica, and Europe. The majority of their species are found in Africa, an estimated number of 1,600 species, followed by 120 species in Central America and Mexico. In Asia, there are only 9 native species, one each in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Two in Iran and three in Sri Lanka and India. Madagascar has its own distinct species, namely Katria, Oxylapia, Paratilapia, Paretroplus, Ptychochromis, and Ptychochromoides. If they are introduced to a different habitat, they become feral and form an invasive group that causes trouble in the local habitat.

Cichlids have the largest proportion of endangered species compared to other vertebrate families and they are also well known for rapid evolution that allows this family to have such a vast number of diverse species.

Cichlids (care guide)
Image Source: Modman

The introduction of cichlids to other non-native habitats has resulted in mass extinction in this family. Conservatives estimate that in the cichlid family, around 43 cichlids are extinct, 5 are extinct in the wild, 37 species are critically endangered, 11 species are endangered, 34 species are vulnerable and 1 species is at low risk.

We have a very detailed article on the Apistogramma on our website if you would like to further delve into the Cichlid family.

Read on for everything you want to know about the Cichlid family.

Scientific NameCichlidae
OriginAfrica, South America, and Asia
Size1 inch to 3 feet
Aquarium Size3 Gallon per fish
Lifespan3-20 Years
Ease of CareRanging from mild to moderate
TemperamentRanging from mild to aggressive

Types of Cichlids

Out of the vast variety of cichlids, some are quite famous in the aquarium trade. They are loved, adored, and treasured for their majestic looks and fun personalities (many of them think their homicidal activities to be fun). Some of the most common types you will observe in the community or individual aquariums are as follows:

  • Convict Cichlid
  • Peacock Cichlid
  • Firemouth Cichlid
  • Mayan Cichlid
  • Jewel Cichlid
  • Jaguar Cichlid
  • Ram Cichlid
  • Texas Cichlid
  • Red Devil Cichlid
  • Green Terror Cichlid
  • Bumblebee Cichlid
  • Midas Cichlid
  • Rainbow Cichlid
  • Red Zebra Cichlid
  • Blue Dolphin Cichlid
  • Electric Blue Cichlid
  • Frontosa Cichlid
  • Keyhole Cichlid
  • Salvini Cichlid

Appearance

A family consisting of 2-3000 different species is sure to be full of diversity when it comes to appearance. Some Cichlids are laterally compressed, while others are cylindrical in shape, some are 1 inch in size, while others are 3 feet. There is a huge selection for you to choose from when it comes to Cichlids.

They all, however, share one key feature. The lower pharyngeal bones are fused into a single tooth-bearing structure. A set of muscles allow the upper and lower pharyngeal bones to be used as a set of jaws for chewing, allowing two different types of jaws, “True Jaws” and “Pharyngeal Jaws”.

Other features that distinguish them from other families in the Labroidei group are:

1.       A single nostril on each side of the forehead instead of two.

2.       No bony shelf below the eye orbit.

3.       Division of the lateral line organ into two sections, one on the upper half of the flank and the second along the midline of the flank from about halfway along the body to the base of the tail.

4.       A distinctively shaped otolith.

5.       The small intestine’s left side exits from the stomach instead of the right as in other Labroidei.

Fish Size:

1 inch to 3 feet. There are a number of factors that impact cichlid size. Leaving DNA aside, food intake till the time of maturity (8 weeks or less) greatly impacts their size. The more they are fed, the more they will grow, but be wary not to overfeed them. Cichlids are known to beg for food even when they are full, which is normal. Overfeeding them will help them grow bigger but it will also make room for the Malawi Bloat, where the cichlid will grow abnormally large and leave behind whitish, stringy feces.

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Other factors that impact fish size are water parameters. Like how African Cichlids prefer alkaline water of between 8-9 pH and a temperature of 80 Fahrenheit. Stress and illness also impact their size.

Color:

A huge variety of colors exist among cichlids. Every species features unique coloration and patterns. The African Haplochromini are known to be the most vivid and colorful type of cichlids. In the majority of cases, there are no borders, the colors shade into each other in a seamless manner, giving out an enchanting view in light rays penetrating through the clear water. These patterns are what make these fish so attractive and this is exactly why aquarists want to add them to their collection. Evolution gave birth to these color variations between the African, American, and Asian species of cichlids. Within a span of thousands of years, the cichlid population grew and spread far and wide, adjusting to different climates, habitats, and conditions. 

Cichlids feature differences in coloration not just among different species but also within them, to an individual level. Like how an Alpha male displays vivid, bright colors to display aggression and territorial control, the bright colors to which females are attracted. The males that submit, start displaying dull colors.

African Cichlids
Image Source: Modman

Difference between Male and Females:

As with any dimorphic animal, males tend to be brightly colored and bigger in size, they also feature larger fins. Females appear plumper, dull, and feature small fins.

Life Span

3-20 years is the lifespan of fish in the Cichlid family.

Diet

Carnivores, Herbivores, Omnivores, Planktivores and Detritivores all exist in the Cichlid family.  This goes to show how diverse this family is, consisting of the full range of food consumption in the animal kingdom.

Carnivores:

1.       Molluscivorous

These have different hunting strategies to capture their food. Lake Malawi Cichlids consume substrate, which goes through their gills and filters out mollusks using finger-like structures in their gills called gill rakers.

2.       Piscivorous

These Cichlids eat fish, fry, larvae, and eggs. Most of them also feed on fry that is carried by mouthbrooders. They ram into their heads, forcing them to spit out fry, which is then eaten by the predator.

Herbivores and Detritivores:

A major portion of cichlids are herbivores that feed on plants and algae. Only a small portion of their diet consists of invertebrates. Others are classed as detritivores feeding on organic material, such as Aufwachs.

African cichlids care guide
Image Source: Modman

Hunting Strategies:

Cichlids are known to be predatory animals so they use a variety of hunting methods to trap prey such as lunging at their prey from hiding spots (Crenicichla) or chasing them in open water (Ramphochromis). The Paedophagous feed on other species’ eggs or fry, Trematocranus feed on snails, while the Pungu maclareni feed on sponges. Lepidophagy is another unusual feeding strategy adopted by certain genera of cichlids such as the Corematodus, Docimodus evelynae, Piecodus, and Perissodus. This involves feeding on scales and fins of other fish. Another interesting strategy is used by Nimbochromis and Parachromis, which involves playing “dead”, acting motionless and attacking any unaware fish that approach.

Cichlids feature many different types of teeth, most commonly 7 rows of teeth that get shorter the further they go. They feature sharp teeth for biting, file-like teeth for taking off scales, and flat teeth for chewing on algae. Some species also feature plump lips that form a grip on uneven surfaces to allow for better suction for detritivores species.

These different hunting strategies have helped them survive in habitats that are not native to them. This adds to their invasive nature.

Behavior and Temperament

Cichlids tend to be territorial, aggression is sort of like a ritualistic part of their life. Their social structure is dichotomous which includes an Alpha male and several subordinates. During mating or when new fish are introduced, the stronger, alpha male displays vividly bright coloration and attacks them using different tactics like biting and ramming. Physical aggression is quite common for resource gain, mating, and establishing dominance. Females also prefer to mate with the Alpha, as they are the most brightly colored in the tank, beta males develop pale, dull colors. The alpha can either resort to monogamy or polygamy.

Unlike most fish, cichlids also defend their feeding territories. The males circle around areas that are rich in algae and protein-filled invertebrates. They aggressively guard the boundary but can be overcome by huge numbers of other fish.

They communicate using visual, scent, acoustic, chemical, and tactical cues. Bright colors often signify aggression, they have been recorded to use sounds to tip-off their ally or opponent and tactical cues are commonly used during fights. Two males lock mouths and stay in that position until one falls to the bottom and flees. Chemical communication is used between the fry and their parents for identification that goes both ways.

Aquarium and Water Parameters

pH7.8-8.5
dH10-15
Temperature72-85 Fahrenheit 

Aquarium Size:

The aquarium size depends on the genus or species of cichlid. For the sake of reference, let us consider the African Cichlid here. They grow up to a length of 6 inches and cichlids this size require at least a 30 gallon tank, keep on adding 3 gallons for every fish you add. Smaller fish will require a smaller tank but do keep in mind that these fish take time to grow, so when you are deciding the tank size, do so thinking about adult cichlids. 

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Bigger tanks give them plenty of room to establish their feeding and mating territories without disturbing the other tank mates. A cichlid’s territorial nature should always be considered before setting up a tank for them.

Peacock cichlids
Image Source: Modman

Decor:

Their natural habitat is tropical and subtropical regions, so it is recommended that the aquarium décor is matched with that according to the exact habitat location of the species you plan to keep in your aquarium. 

Tropical waters feature soft substrates, which should be mimicked in your aquarium. These fish like to dig for brooding, making hiding spots, and searching for food, so a soft substrate will prevent the injury. Along with this, one should also ensure the placement of furniture and rocks that are tightly held in place, so as not to fall onto fish.

Plants are recommended because they are a source of protein and also provide hiding and breeding spots for cichlids. Plants like Java Moss, Java Fern, Cryptocoryne, and other such tropical plants are recommended, along with leaves on the ground to mimic tropical river beds. 

Equipment:

PH monitors should be kept to keep those levels within 7.8-8.5 because cichlids prefer alkaline conditions. A dH level of 10-15 is recommended and a temperature of 72-85 Fahrenheit. 

To maintain the temperature within safe limits a 250W thermostat heater is recommended along with an ATI thermometer. To stimulate sunlight, we would recommend a strip of fluorescent lights that stick to glass. Complete darkness will result in stress for the cichlids, which will hamper their growth. 

Many cichlids are comfortable in still or sluggish waters but a few species require strong water flow, for which you will require a water flow regulator for your aquarium. Commonly, cichlids prefer freshwater over saline and brackish water. They are most comfortable in shallow, fresh environments that are anything far from the extreme, warm, and saline environments that some genera such as the Danakilia are used to. To maintain a clean environment inside the fish tank, an Eheim Pro II 2028 and Magnum 350 canister filter with BIO-Wheel and a recommended Eheim media and Black Diamond Premium Activated Carbon should be used. This will help regulate water parameters.

Maintenance:

To keep your cichlids alive healthy and well, you will need to follow the following schedule:

  • Daily:
  • Feed fish
  • Check water level and fill if needed
  • Must Check filter operation, clean if flow rate is slow
  • Check water temperature
  • Weekly:
  • Test ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, and alkalinity
  • Add buffer if needed
  • Clean magnum filter
  • Bi-Weekly
  • Clean inside/outside aquarium glass, glass canopy, and strip lights
  • Perform 25% water change
  • Monthly:
  • Change carbon in Magnum Filter
  • Rinse all media in Eheim with non-chlorinated water

Tank Mates

Cichlids, being highly competitive, territorial, and aggressive fish, rarely get along well with their own family, let alone other fish.

Best Tank Mates:

They should be ideally paired with fish that are equally competitive, strong, and big in size, so they can keep up with the tense environment cichlids thrive in. Along with this, those fish should be picked out that can survive in the same conditions cichlids can, to ensure healthy and consistent water conditions. Some of the recommended tank mates for cichlids are:

  • African Butterfly Cichlid
  • African Red-Eyed Tetra
  • Clown Loaches
  • Flying Fox Fish
  • Giant Danios
  • Leopard Bushfish
  • Murray River Rainbowfish
  • Plecos
  • Pictus Catfish
  • Red-Spotted Scat Fish
  • Red Tail Shark
  • Salmon Red Rainbowfish
  • Siamese Algae Eater
  • Spotted Raphael Catfish
  • Synodontis Catfish
  • West African Dwarf Cichlids

Worst Tank Mates:

The following fish should not be kept with cichlids to preserve a peaceful environment in the tank and to maintain a consistent and healthy environment:

  • Fish with shy, peaceful and docile temperaments
  • Fish that are happy-go-lucky, bubbling around without respect to territory
  • Naturally less aggressive and easily spooked fish
  • Fish that look similar in size and color to the particular type of African Cichlid in question
  • Angelfish
  • Black Moor Goldfish
  • Corydoras
  • Discus
  • Glassfish
  • Guppy Fish
  • Silver Dollar Fish
  • Small Tetras
  • Tiny Danios like the Celestial Pearl Danio.

Breeding

The diversity in cichlids and their habitats is also reflected in the number of ways they mate. They mate in either a monogamous or polygamous way, however, this does not determine the way they brood. Cichlids are known to either Substrate Brood (Pit Spawning) or Mouth Brood. Broods are basically their eggs or young ones right after they hatch. Many cichlids like the Apistogramma place their eggs or young fry in good hiding spots like sandcastles or plants, while mouthbrooding cichlids place their eggs or fry in their mouth and carry them till they are mature enough. Every cichlid cares for its young until they feel like they are mature enough to fend for themselves. Just like feeding grounds, cichlids form defensive parameters around mating grounds and signal their young using fin movements to warn of incoming predators.

Breeding process and Fry

The alpha male attracts females using its bright coloration and large fins, once the female takes a liking to the male, they choose a spot for spawning (pit brooding). The female prefers large pits, around 2-5cm wide, where cichlids lay eggs around some 400-500 eggs within 90 minutes. The male then swims over the eggs and sprays semen over them for fertilization, the father guards the boundaries of the breeding ground while the mother cares for the fry until they are able to handle their own. Mouth brooders mate in a slightly different manner.

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Thanks to evolution, this has been made easy for them, males developed egg spots near the anal fin. They are shaped and colored just like their eggs, this fools the females into thinking they are eggs and when they approach those spots with eggs in their mouth, the male sprays semen in there to fertilize the eggs.

Mouth brooders, when attacked, are rammed in the head by predators. This makes them spit out the eggs or fry, which are eaten by the attackers. Gender roles are often reversed here, in many species the male carries fry in their mouth but the number of those species is very few.

Common Problems

A lack of maintenance in any aquarium will lead to its inhabitants contracting all sorts of illnesses. Lack of filtration, overfeeding fish, not cleaning feces and dead fish. All of these factors contribute and give rise to the following diseases:

Swim Bladder Disease:

This has to do with the swim bladder, a sac on the abdomen that helps the fish stay afloat. It has difficulty staying submerged when this part of its body is affected. This commonly occurs due to injuries and malnourishment. Potential causes are sometimes in the form of TB and cancer, stress and a poor diet (constipation, less food) can also aggravate the situation.

The remedy for this is a good balanced diet and protection spaces for fish to hide in from aggressive predators.

Malawi Bloat:

Common among African Cichlids. Malawi Bloat, as the name suggests results due to over eating. If you overfeed your cichlids, they will swell up, lose their appetite, breathe rapidly and expel discolored feces. Prolonged effects lead to kidney and liver damage, at this stage it becomes fatal within 3 days. The cause is still being argued upon by experts, but many believe that it is caused by protozoans living in cichlid intestines.

The remedy for this is not to overfeed them and regular large water changes in the tank along with cleaning the tank filter.

Tuberculosis:

This is an infectious disease that can also be transmitted to humans through cuts and sores. Fish showing symptoms like loss of appetite, flayed fins, white blotches on skin, sunken stomachs and changes in behavior that cause lethargy, should be isolated.

Every other healthy fish should be transferred to a safe tank and the infected tank should be cleaned with melafix and thoroughly disinfected before re-adding the other fish.

Cotton Wool Disease:

A fungal disease that is very easy to spot as fuzzy white growths on the face and fins. Fungal infections like these occur due to water being polluted by too much food or fecal matter.

A good remedy for this is antifungal medication or bath salts.

Hole in The Head:

Known also as Hexamita, named after the parasite that causes it. A depression in the head that is followed by a loss of appetite and weight. Experts believe that it is caused by there being impurities in the water tank and the presence of the Hexamita parasite.

The remedy for this is improving water quality, food and treating the tank with antibiotics.

White Spot (Ich):

Caused by a protozoan parasite called Ichthyophthirius multifiliis. Infected fish display white spots on their fins. These fish will be highly infective, and might infect the whole tank, so it is recommended to isolate them as soon as symptoms are revealed.

Treatments for ich include salt baths, increased tank temperature, potassium permanganate, malachite green and acriflavine.

Gill flukes:

As suggested by the name, the gills will be infected by a parasite, they will turn in the west. The gills will get covered with slime, which will make it difficult for the fish to breathe.

Remedy for this would be the addition of bath salts to the aquarium.

Skinny Disease:

Similar to malawi bloat, but the fish’s stomach significantly decreases in size, it is treated the same as malawi bloat.

Battle Scars:

Being very territorial fish, cichlids will always be fighting with their tank mates over some territory. The only way to resolve battle scars is to choose better suited tank mates.

FAQs

What is a Cichlid Fish?

Cichlid is a subgroup of the Labroidei group. This is one of the largest families of vertebrates that includes countless genera and species.

How long do Cichlid Fish live?

They live from anywhere between 3-20 years. In captivity, they are known to live for at leas

What does a Cichlid Fish look like?

They have a vast variety of appearances. Some are laterally flat, while others are long and cylindrical. Some of the more common features exclusive to cichlids are:
1.       A single nostril on each side of the forehead instead of two.
2.       No bony shelf below the eye orbit.
3.       Division of the lateral line organ into two sections, one on the upper half of the flank and the second along the midline of the flank from about halfway along the body to the base of the tail.
4.       A distinctively shaped otolith.
5.       The small intestine’s left side exits from the stomach instead of the right as in other Labroidei.

Conclusion

We hope this article answered all your curious questions regarding this sub-group of fish called Cichlids. They all have very distinct personalities but commonly share territorial aggression and egg/fry care.

If you have any further queries regarding Cichlids or any specific type of genus or species within this subgroup, then keep an eye on our website, because you are sure to find related content here.

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