Convict Cichlid
Image Source: S. Olkowicz

Convict Cichlid: A Complete Care Guide on Zebra Cichlids

The Convict or Zebra Cichlid discovered and named by the German born British ichthyologist Albert Karl Ludwig Gotthilf Günther in 1867, is a very well-known and sought after fish in the aquarium trade. Given its name because of the black and white strips that resemble convict uniforms, with the personality to match. Native to South America, along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Some Convict Cichlids, however, were also found in Australia. This was not a coincidence but they were taken there by hobbyists and the environment proved to be suitable.

Read on to learn more about these aggressive yet beautiful freshwater cichlids and how to care for them and set up their tanks. This care guide will walk you through every details you will ever need regarding Convict Cichlid care and needs.

Scientific NameAmatitlania nigrofasciata
OriginCentral America
Size4.5-6 Inches
Aquarium Size30 Gallons (50 gallons for breeding)
Lifespan8-10 Years
Ease of CareModerate


Appearance wise, Convict Cichlids have the typical cichlid look. Resembling the most African Cichlid family, these have quite a long dorsal fin that starts at some distance from their face. The dorsal and pectoral fins go together till the caudal peduncle and they are both almost transparent.

The Zebra Cichlids have average sized, transparent ventral and pectoral fins with their anal fin beginning at the mid-point and ending at the caudal peduncle. Unlike other fins, their caudal fin has no coloration and is shaped in such a way that it gives a streamlined look while the Convict Cichlid swims. It looks almost like an aerodynamic feature.

Convict Cichlid
Image Source: PxFuel

Fish Size:

Females grow up to be 4.5 inches in size and males grow up to 6 inches. These are relatively small for cichlid standards but their growth period is generally stable and does not require extra care or attention. This just goes to show the resilience factor of this species.


These fish feature a greyish-blue body with around eight (give or take a few) black strips on them. They got their name because they resemble the uniform of convicts or the stripes of zebras. The color can differ slightly based on age, gender and lighting! Some aquarists reported seeing different colored Convict in their tanks, but in reality it was different reflections in different light shades.

A pink variant of the Convict Cichlid also exists, resulting from selective breeding. These fish are a shade of white and pink but the Zebra pattern is the most sought after.

Difference between Male and Female:

The only difference between males and females appearance wise, is the size and genitalia. Females grow up to be 4.5 inches long and males grow up to be 6 inches long, males will also have larger anal and dorsal fins. Unlike other species, the females will be brightly colored and will display colorful spots near their gills when they become sexually mature.

Life Span

The average lifespan of Convict Cichlids is 8-10 years. This is achieved through proper care and breeding because genetics also have an influence on the growth of this fish. It is highly unlikely for Convict Cichlids, bred and raised by an amateur breeder to reach 8 years, let alone 10.

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In their native habitat of the warm waters of Central America, Convict Cichlids feed on plants, insects, mosquito larvae etc. They are omnivores, which means that their diet consists of both plants and meat. When you keep them in a tank, they will feed on anything you put in, this should not make you think that they are not demanding and will be satisfied with anything.

To ensure a healthy lifestyle, the tank owner should maintain a stable diet for Convict Cichlids at regular intervals or twice a day. This diet should include high quality flakes and pellets designed for cichlids. The protein portion should include live or frozen blood worms, black worms, baby brine shrimp or insect larvae. You can also feed them vegetables like lettuce, carrot and cabbage.

Their feeding time should be strictly adhered to, just because they will not stop eating does not mean that they should receive an endless amount of food. This will not only pollute the tank and destabilize water parameters, but this will also have an adverse impact on the Convict Cichlid’s health.

Behavior and Temperament

Convict Cichlids are the true embodiment of the well-known cichlid aggressive and territorial personality. For a beginner, it is highly ill-advised to keep them in a community tank because in a small enough tank, the convict male will easily become the dominant fish (they are not afraid to attack larger fish). A large enough tank (50 gallons or bigger) will be most suited for these fish because they have been observed to display minimal aggression when there is lots of space to swim around in.

Convict Cichlids like to explore the tank, so it is best to add lots of hiding spaces when setting up decorations because that will give other, less aggressive fish room to hide.

Aquarium and Water Parameters

They are sturdy fish but still require a stable environment. To ensure healthy growth and a long life, water parameters should be closely monitored to prevent any unforeseen mishaps.

PH Level6.6-7.8
Water Hardness10-15dH
Temperature79-84 Fahrenheit  

Tank Size:    

At least a 30 gallon tank because these fish are extremely territorial. A large tank will allow plentiful space to move around in, automatically resulting in less conflicts over territory. If you plan on breeding them, then we would recommend a 50 gallon tank at least.

A tight space and constant stress will hamper their growth and health. Fish that remain happy will grow up healthy.


It is a good idea to mimic their native habitat, the warm waters of Central America. For the substrate, we would suggest something soft, like sand, because these fish like to dig around occasionally. Any plants you place in the tank, like for example hornwort, java fern and amazon swords should be anchored because the way these fish have a tendency to redecorate the tank, they are sure to make a mess. Floating plants are also recommended for added eye candy if you are setting up a planted aquarium.

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Rocks with holes and other decoration pieces are preferred that are big enough to provide hiding spaces. This will not only look aesthetically pleasing, but it will also significantly lessen aggression by providing private spaces for tank inhabitants. Some rocks and driftwood will also help in providing cover and making them feel at home.


Convict Cichlids feel comfortable in a steady flow, so mild water flow will help minimize their stress in the aquarium. Apart from this, when they dig, they often get carried away and raise a lot of dirt, creating a cloud of dust and dirt. To handle this, a good quality hang on back filter is recommended.

Water Parameters:

These fish are relatively sturdy when compared to some species of cichlids, but that does not mean the owner should not monitor water parameters carefully. The owner should maintain a stable environment in the aquarium and avoid any sudden changes which might result in stress or injury for the fish. It should be noted that Convicts get extra aggressive as temperatures rise, so the tank temperature should not be allowed to reach the upper limits.

Convict Cichlid Care guide

Tank Mates

Given their highly territorial and aggressive nature, it is not recommended for beginners to keep them in community tanks. Additionally, their water parameter requirements also further narrow down the list of compatible tank mates. If you absolutely want there to be no conflict then keep just one Convict or a single pair in a tank because there is always risk of a scuffle in community tanks with cichlids. If you add a pair in a community tank, that will just amp up the aggression. There is also a strong possibility of them breeding because Convicts breed easily. Still, however, we have listed a few options to keep and those to avoid down below.

Best Tank Mates:

The best tank mates for these fish are those that can withstand similar water conditions and are equally if not slightly more aggressive, so they can at least defend themselves. The following are a few notable fish that can survive with Convicts in a community tank:

Worst Tank Mates:

The worst tank mates for Convicts are those that cannot survive in such water parameters and are very small, docile and gentle. Fish that cannot defend themselves in a fight have a chance to get severely injured in any conflict they get into with Convicts.


Among all the fish, Convicts are the easiest to breed. Despite their difficult temperament and community behavior, they do not require much for breeding.

In the wild, when they pair up, the female lays eggs in hiding spots behind rocks or huge plants. The same can be mimicked here by placing stones with caves in them or flower pots or anything! Because these fish are anything but picky when it comes to breeding. Once all the prerequisites have been arranged, crank up the tank temperature to the higher side of the spectrum (80-84 F), this will initiate breeding. Females will develop bright coloration and will find a dark, secluded spot where they plan to lay eggs.

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Cichlids reach sexual maturity when they are around 7-8 months old. The female will lay the eggs that will be fertilized by the male and in around 4 days you can expect some 30 Convicts to hatch from 300 eggs. After a further 5 days, the fry will abandon their yolk and start to swim.

When Convicts find their pair and lay eggs, they become extremely aggressive and territorial. In a sense that they will attack any fish that just about wanders close to the eggs, it is for this reason experts do not suggest adding a pair of Convicts inside a community tank. Once the eggs are laid, the female guards them diligently and the male patrols the parameter. After they hatch, both parents care for their food but when the fry exit their yolk, the father can become aggressive towards them, which is why it is recommended to remove him from the tank at this stage.

Common Problems

There are no specific problem for Convicts to worry about but they can succumb to common illnesses like ich or fin rot. They are a hardy species but it pays to maintain preventive care.

Every now and then, the owner should observe these fish, the way they swim, the way they eat (or stop eating) and the way they look. Any irregularity can indicate that something is wrong, ich causes white spots on the body, fin rot is caused by damage sustained during fights and a loss of appetite can indicate that something wrong is afoot.

If you provide them an ideal environment with spot on water parameters, low stress, an ideal habitat and healthy food. We do not see a reason for them getting ill or malnourished. A healthy fish is a happy fish.


Q: When to remove Convict Cichlid Fry?

The ideal time to remove them would be when they exit their yolk and start swimming, because that is exactly when the father might get aggressive towards them.

Q: How big does a Convict Cichlid get?

Females grow up to be around 4.5 inches long and males grow up to be 6 inches long.

Q: What do Convict Cichlid eggs look like?

They look like small sacks of yolk laid on rocks.


We hope this article answered all your curious questions regarding Convict Cichlids, making it clear how hardy and easy to breed these fish are. This exact quality makes them super easy for beginners to keep. You will, however, need to keep their excessively aggressive and territorial nature in mind, in a sense that keeping Convicts in a community tank needs experience and skill.

Apart from that, these fish are an absolute treat to own, given their behavior of constantly swimming about and exploring the tank. If you have any further queries regarding Convict Cichlid care, do not hesitate to get in touch!

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