African Cichlid Care Guide: Tank Setup, Types & Tank Mates

African cichlids are a larger species of freshwater fish that originate in Africa, Asia, and South America. These fish tend to be a popular pet among aquarists, due to the large range of colors that you can keep, even if you don’t have a saltwater tank.

Each different kind has slightly varying temperaments as well, and are resilient in captivity.

African cichlids are an extremely active group of fish, making them an aquarium favorite for viewing. Though they require special care, many different types can be good for beginning aquarium owners because of their toughness.

There are plenty of colors and patterns of this species for you to choose from, though it can take up to a year for them to develop full color. Coloring can be impacted by the quality of care they receive (we’ll cover that more a bit further down).

Each type of African cichlid’s aggression level should be minded when placing together in an aquarium. They are more aggressive in general than other common tropical fish.

Though there a ton of different African cichlid species confirmed in the wild, but far fewer are available as pets. Almost all of the species that you’ll find in personal aquariums originate from Lake Malawi in East Africa. A handful of others come from Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria.

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Common Types Of African Cichlids

Understanding a bit about the types of African cichlids you can choose from is very important (past just a simple color preference). Although these fish are aggressive in general, there can be some slight behavioral differences between them.

It doesn’t matter if you’re someone who is planning on getting their very first aquarium, or a seasoned pro. We highly recommend taking some time to learn about each variation.

Maingano:  These have bold horizontal stripes in a variety of blues.

Zebra Mbuna aka Zebra Cichlids: As the name suggests, these fish have black and white stripes down their bodies.

Orange Zebra: These fish display black stripes or spots on their orange body. They grow to be about five inches in length and are highly aggressive.

Compressiceps: Also know by the startling name of the “Malawi Eyebiter”, these fish are long, thin, and have a shiny silver color to their bodies. They can be highly aggressive.

Electric Yellow: The electric yellow cichlid tend to be less aggressive than their relatives, which can make them good fish for the inexperienced tank owner. These fish are shorter, only about three inches long. They are yellow with dark fin tips, and a long dorsal fin running down the back.

Peacock Cichlids: Only slightly aggressive, Peacock cichlids (also called Aulonocara nyassae) are one of the more colorful types of cichlids, ranging in colors of dark tan to silvery-blue. They are also bottom-feeders.

Peacock Cichlid
Peacock Cichlid

Sunshine Peacock: These moderately-aggressive fish are resilient, making them another good choice for new hobbyists. They sport a shining mix of yellows and blues.

Yellow sunshine peacock with black background
Yellow sunshine peacock

Hap (short for “Haplochromis”): One of the most common types of cichlids, these fish prefer swimming in open water, they have a medium aggression level, feeding on smaller fish. Female haps tend to be duller in color than the males.

Electric Blue Hap: Also known as the Hap Ahli, these fish are easy to maintain and come in a solid and vibrant blue color. Interestingly enough, blue haps don’t get along well with peacock cichlids, so you may not want to house them together.

Kribensis (“kribs”, for short): The smallest of the cichlids, these fish range from three to four inches in length. They are less aggressive and suitable for beginners.

Blue Dolphin Moorii: This fish is popular because of its shiny blue scales. They grow to be large, up to nine or ten inches. Because of this, they tend to be a little harder to care for, requiring a larger tank.

Butterfly: These cichlids sport vertical black stripes. They can be pretty docile, allowing them to live with some other fish.

Buffalo Head: They have other names such as “Humphead”, “Lionhead”, and  “Blockhead”, referring to their prominent foreheads. They tend to be more peaceful than others, and they grow to about 4.5 inches in length).

Mbuna (sometimes called Malawi cichlids): Like the other most common type of cichlid that is found in Lake Malawi, Mbunas are fairly aggressive. They are herbivores, and both sexes are equally bright in color. These fish seek out rocky areas to reside in.

Giraffe: Also names the venustus cichlid, these fish tend to have blue faces with dark, giraffe-like spots. They are larger, measuring at up to ten inches. Giraffe cichlids require more experienced handlers, as they can be extremely sensitive to the nitrate levels in their water.

Temperament And Behavior

As we mentioned earlier, African cichlids are an aggressive species in general (look at the Jack Dempsey for example). For example, they’re more aggressive than fish such as tetras. They’re also very active. 

This activity level makes them fun fish to observe though. There’s always something going on!

They’re not the kind of fish that will simply sit back and take it easy.

They want to investigate what’s going on in their tank and will show no fear when doing this. This can sometimes lead to confrontations with other fish at times.

Their aggression is not something that you should take lightly when planning your aquarium. These traits will need to be accommodated for in the tank setup if you want to ensure the safety and health of all the fish in your tank.

African Cichlid Tank Setup

When it comes to finding the right tank setup, you just have to stick to the fundamentals. Make sure all the fish in the tank have enough space and the water is comfortable for everyone.

As long as you take care of these basics and maintain a healthy tank, everyone should be just fine.

How Big Should Their Tank Be?

Since African cichlids are an active and aggressive species, they should have plenty of space.

Fish that are at least six inches long should be considered larger, and require a minimum of 30 gallons of aquarium space. Smaller fish need at least a 20-gallon tank.

Should you want to add more fish to the aquarium, you should accommodate about three extra gallons per additional fish. Keep in mind that the fish will grow, so plan your aquarium around the size of adult cichlids.

What To Put In Their Tank

Most African cichlids prefer either open water or rocky spaces, so make sure to accommodate for both. Some fish like to search for food in the sand, so it is ideal to have a fine-grain substrate they can search through without getting injured.

African cichlids are very territorial, so having lots of cavities and hiding places is crucial for avoiding conflict. Aquarium plants, furniture, and rocky caves are suitable for this. If rocks are used, they must be secure and not able to fall onto the fish in your tank.

Of course, there must also be a suitably-sized filter and heater in each tank. Special lighting is not required but often used for viewing pleasure.

Ideal Water Flow

The water in the tank should be moving, to mimic natural current. This is usually achieved with a regular tank filter, however, African cichlids that are found in rivers may appreciate a slightly stronger current. An additional air or water pump can be used for this purpose.

Water Temp And pH Levels

Having a water level test kit on hand is crucial for monitoring the conditions in your tank. This should be the standard protocol for ensuring that your tank is in a healthy condition for your fish.

The freshwater lakes and rivers that these fish reside in have hard water. Therefore, they need a pH range of 6.5 to 8.5. The exact number is more specific to the type of fish.

The ideal water temp for African cichlids is a fairly flexible range between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. This should be plenty to allow you to make them comfortable and also accommodate their tank mates.

African Cichlid Tank Mates

Due to the aggressive nature of these fish, there are specific types of tankmates that should be avoided. Number one on this list would be fish that prefer swimming in open water. They will most likely be attacked since they will be mostly defenseless.

Small fish should also be avoided, as they will likely become an easy meal.

It’s tempting to house African cichlids in the same tank as South American cichlids since they look similar. However, they require different care, and will likely fight.

Bottom-feeding fish that are large enough to defend themselves will most likely be left alone, such as African catfish. These tend to be considered the ideal tank mates for African cichlids.

If you want to play it safe and ensure that no one gets attacked, then the best option will always be a solo-species tank. This might not seem that exciting, but it’s a solution that many owners prefer.

You still get a tank of colorful and exciting fish, but you never have to worry about walking in on a horror scene.

Food And Diet Options

Variation in the African cichlid diet is key. Depending on the kind you own, they might be mainly insectivores, herbivores, or omnivores. It is good to include a little of everything including a solid base of fish food.

Varieties of food you can give them include small fish meat, tubifex worms, insects, cichlid pellets, frozen food, wafers, or brine shrimp, as well as some household fruit and vegetable supply. They’ll need to be fed twice each day.

To avoid overfeeding, the fish should be given no more than they can eat in three minutes. This will not only reduce waste, but it will keep the tank cleaner as well.

African Cichlid Care

It’s important to have your tank on a stable surface. The tank itself should be sealed well, with no leaks. African cichlids have been known to jump out of the water occasionally, so it’s a good idea to have a sturdy lid on your tank.

Electric blue cichlid swimming near bottom of tank

The water in the tank needs to be “cycled”, meaning it needs to be changed every other week, or weekly, depending on how dirty the tank gets. As fish produce waste, the nitrate levels in the tank water rise.

Changing the water often enough keeps the nitrate levels from getting high enough to kill the fish. Always thoroughly clean anything that comes into contact with the tank water as well. 

A large part of African cichlid care is being able to recognize the signs of a problem. There are some common signs of illness to watch for among your collection to prevent fatalities.

Some common illnesses and symptoms include:

  • Tuberculosis, which is highly contagious, causing the fish to stop eating, as well as develop white blotches on the scales.
  • Bloating, or, Malawi Bloat. Potentially fatal swelling in the abdomen.
  • Cotton Wool Disease, a fungal infection causing white growths.
  • Swim bladder disease, noted by a fish being stuck at the surface of the water.
  • Hexamita, marked by scale lesions and a lack of appetite.
  • Gill Flukes, a parasite causing problems with breathing and slimy gills.

Average Lifespan

The average lifespan of African cichlids is eight years with proper care. Just like any fish, this can vary drastically if they live in a suboptimal tank situation with a poor diet and water quality.

Breeding African cichlids

When trying to breed African cichlids, you’ll need to have a male and female in the same tank by themselves. For optimal breeding odds, the layout, furniture, and size of the tank must not be changed during this process.

It’s important to know that the species is able to mate within different species (cross-breeding). It’s easiest to use mature fish to ensure their ability to breed.

Always monitor the tank for fights between the male and female, as breeding can bring out more aggression. African cichlids perform mating rituals in which they display their colors and move in certain ways. Once fertilized, your fish will either lay their eggs and guard them in a secure cave/tank cavity, or hold them in their mouth for about 21 (mouthbrooding).

During this time, it’s important to watch for aggression around the group of eggs, called a fry. Sometimes, your fish will try to eat the fry. In this case, the eggs need to be separated into a “breeding” tank. When the fry hatches, a female may look after them for up to fourteen days. After this point, the female is ready to mate again.

It’s Time To Decide If They’re Right For You

Now that you have all the info you need to make a decision, it’s time to sit down and think.

Owning African cichlids can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. They are beautiful, active, and very exciting fish!

However, their aggressiveness can sometimes be something that aquarists don’t want to deal with.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. The right choice is what’s going to be best for you and the aquatic life you decide to take care of.

We hope you got plenty of value out of this care guide. As always, if you have any questions you can always reach out and ask.

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