Apistogramma Care 101 (aka Dwarf Cichlid)

Apistogramma aka Dwarf Cichlids are among the freshwater species we recommend the most.

Not only are they simply stunning to look at, but they’re also a bit different than your normal cichlid. From their size to their temperament, they really break the mold!

But for some reason, not many people have an accurate understanding of what these fish need if you want them to thrive in your aquarium. And that’s why we put together this guide.

Below you’ll learn all you need to know about this species. We’ve included care tips like diet, tank mates, and size as well as general info that’ll make ownership a whole lot easier.


Species Summary

Also known as Dwarf Cichlids, Apistogramma are vibrant and lively fish. Not only do they look great, but they’re one of the most inquisitive fish you can get for a freshwater aquarium. They love to explore their territory and will often interact with things they see on the other side of the glass.

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Technically speaking, Apistogramma is the name of the genus. There are several species that fall under the Apistogramma umbrella. As you might have guessed from their Dwarf Cichlid nickname, these fish also belong to the Cichlidae family.

In the wild, they can be found all across South America. They’re usually found living in slow-moving rivers and streams around the Amazon basin. The fish also live on the edges of larger lakes, though most tend to stick to shallower habitats.

These days, the easiest way to admire these fish up close in aquariums. Thanks to their fun personalities, Apistogramma have become incredibly popular in the community. Their eye-catching looks don’t hurt either.

With that said, they are not for newbies. These fish can be a bit of a challenge to take care of. They require excellent water quality conditions to truly thrive.

Types Of Apistogramma

In total, there are over 90 different Apistogramma species! Many newly discovered species still need to be evaluated by the scientific community.

While there are a lot of similarities in terms of care and environment, each species is unique. They’re found in different parts of South America. Plus, they have distinct looks that make them relatively easy to identify.

Here are some of the most common types of Apistogramma available to aquarists:

Apistogramma Cacatuoides

Lovingly referred to as Dwarf Cockatoo Cichlids, this species is one of the most popular in the fishkeeping community. They are frequently bred in captivity. Take one look at these fish and it’s not hard to see why they have the “Cockatoo” moniker.

Two Apistogramma cacatuoides swimming together in an aquarium

Males have a stunning dorsal fin that’s almost as tall as the rest of their bodies. The fin has a somewhat spiky appearance, mimicking the appearance of a cockatoo’s feathers. The pelvic, anal, and tail fins also have that whispy feather-like shape.

When it comes to color, these types of Apistogramma are some of the most vibrant. Bright red spots are pretty common on the fins for males. The body takes on a more muted yellow tone. However, a prominent “racing” stripe extends from the tail to the head.

Apistogramma Agassizii

Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlids come in a few different color patterns. The most common you’ll see are the vibrant gold ones. Males have a shimmering gold body that’s accompanied by a staunch black stripe or spot. Sometimes, males also have bright red tails.

Yellow Apistogramma agassizii side profile

Like all Apistogramma species, the females are slightly duller and smaller.

Some Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlids can be covered in blue as well. The upper half of the body is a rich blue while their bellies maintain that yellow-gold hue.

The fins take on a different shape than the Cockatoo species. They’re smaller and have a sleek shape that tapers off on towards the end of their bodies.

Agissiz’s Dwarf Cichlids tend to be a bit more territorial than other species. As such, they’ll need plenty of room to hide.

Apistogramma Borellii

Offering a more subdued color pattern is the Apistogramma borelli. They’re commonly referred to as Umbrella Cichlids or simply Yellow Dwarf Cichlids.

As you might have guessed, yellow is the primary color. Though, most have lovely shades of blue that cover the fits. Spots of dark blue can be found along the body as well.

The heads of these fish have some distinct markings as well. Many specimens have iridescent blue spots covering the entire head. You might also see contrasting red markings as well.

A male Apistogramma borellii floating near the bottom of the tank

Yellow Dwarf Cichlids are considered to be one of the gentler Apistogramma species. They do well in community tanks and are hardy enough to thrive in changing water conditions.

Apistogramma Macmasteri

The Apisto Macmasteri has some seriously intimidating looks. They can be identified by their large dorsal and pelvic fins. Adult males have long flowy fins and a squared-off tail. The dorsal fin extends throughout the entire length of the fish and features prominent spikes.

In the wild, this species is known to have a more muted color patterns compared to those bred in captivity. These fish have been selectively bred to have the most vibrant color possible. As such, you’ll find that most of the specimens you find on the market are covered in bright red spots.

Red is usually found on the tips of the fins. Though, some fish also have large spots of red. It’s usually accompanied by a contrasting black stripe.

Apistogramma Hongsloi

Known as Honglo’s Dwarf Cichlids, this species is one of the more colorful varieties you can get. Males are usually covered in a soft pink color. It’s typically found on the belly and face.

Swathes of bright red break up the pink. You might see some distinct red swirls on the fins or vibrant spots on the tail and face. Those bred in captivity might even have more red on them than pink!

In most cases, Honglo’s Dwarf Cichlids do very well with other peaceful fish. They tend to keep their distance and spend most of the time watching over their claimed territory at the bottom of the tank.

Apistogramma Viejita

These fish look very similar to Aposti Macmasteri. In fact, many sellers mix the two species up due to their similar profiles and color patterns.

Like the Macmasteri, Viejeta are very vibrant. Captive-bred specimens can be covered in red spots mixed with dark and light specks. Many also have a prominent black stripe.

The easiest way that you can differentiate a Viejeta from a Macmasteri is by taking a look at the dorsal and tail fins. For Viejeta, the tail fin is rounded and flowing. Some fish also have two distinct points on the top and bottom of the tail.

Meanwhile, the dorsal fin features a large hump towards the front and an elongated section in the back.

Apistogramma Baenschi

Known as the Inca Dwarf Cichlid or Apistogramma Inka, this species is relatively new to the scene. It was first discovered in 2002. However, that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a very popular choice for cichlid enthusiasts.

The most notable aspect of an Inca Dwarf Cichlid is its head. It’s a bit larger than what you’d see on other species. Their lips also stick out. Not only are they bigger, but they take on a dark color that makes them more visible.

When it comes to coloration, these fish can vary quite a bit. Usually, hues of yellow and blue are most common. Vertical black stripes can be found on many specimens as well.

On the tail end of the fish, there’s a prominent black dot and a thick band of vibrant orange.

Apistogramma Elizabethae

With such a regal name comes a matching appearance. Known by their trade name, Fisherman’s Dwarf, these fish have a very unique profile.

Males have a relatively slim body. However, expansive fins make them look much bigger than they really are. The dorsal and anal fins blend in with their tail fin, giving off a unique appearance.

The dorsal fin stretches across the length of their body. It’s shorter and has a flat shape compared to other species. The same goes for the anal fin.

The tail fin is what stands out most. It has a spade-like shape and is covered in thin stripes.

Speaking of coloration, the Fisherman’s Dwarf has spots of gold, blue, and red. The red is usually found on the face and fins.

Apistogramma Trifasciata

This fish is aptly named the Three-Striped Apisto. Three thick bands of black run the length of their body. Two can be found on both sides of the body while the third runs beneath their dorsal fin.

The stripes complement their vibrant blue fins. Like other Apisto species, these fish have very long fins. The upper portion of the dorsal fin is a bit longer than the rest, giving the fish a whispy mohawk.

While most of the body is covered in blue and yellow, some specimens also have red accents. Typically, the red is present on the tips of their fins or on the face.


The average Apistogramma lifespan is between five and ten years. Their lifespan can vary a bit depending on what species you’re talking about.

You can do your part to reach the upper end of that range by maintaining water conditions and giving them a relatively stress-free life.


The appearance of Apistogramma is what originally captivated aquarists. These are some of the most colorful freshwater fish around. Vibrant shades of yellow, blue, and red are very common among Apistos.

A unique type of Apisto inspecting the substrate

Color patterns vary across the board, but that’s what makes owning an Apistogramma so fun! You can choose fish with wildly different looks to create a one-of-a-kind aquarium.

Apistogramma are sexually dimorphic. This means that there are noticeable differences between males and females. Females tend to be on the smaller side compared to males. Plus, their color patterns are more subdued.

Males are the ones with all the beautiful colors. While females tend to be duller, this can change based on their behavior. Females often get more vibrant during the breeding season.


At full maturity, the average adult Apistogramma size is around 3 inches in max length. While the cichlid family is known for having some very large fish that can quickly outgrow a tank, these aren’t your average cichlids.

Again, the exact species you have will determine the maximum size. However, the range is between 0.8 and 3.1 inches.

Author Note: Like any species, the quality of care they receive when they’re young will drastically impact how big they end up being.

Apistogramma Care

Some parts of Apistogramma care can be a little bit tricky and in general, dwarf cichlids aren’t the easiest fish to keep. While they do take some extra work to keep healthy, raising these fish is a very rewarding experience.

Here’s some key information you need to know to help these beauties thrive.

Tank Size

Because of their small size, you don’t need a huge tank to keep Apistogramma happy. Generally, a decent group of fish will only need about 20 gallons of space. Some breeders have even seen success with small groups in a 10-gallon tank (we’re not big fans of that though).

In fact, we recommend going with a tank size closer to 30 gallons. While they can make wonderful nano fish, more space is always appreciated. Though, there’s a fine balance between providing these fish with too much space and not having enough.

The goal is to give every fish plenty of space to call their own. Remember, they can be a bit territorial. Consider how many fish you plan on keeping and choose an appropriately sized tank based on your needs.

Water Parameters

The trickiest part of keeping Apistogramma healthy is managing the water conditions. They can be very picky and sensitive to shifts in pH levels and temperature.

It’s best to mimic the water conditions of their natural habitat. In the Amazon basin, water is on the warmer side. The streams and tributaries where these fish live also have a relatively neutral pH balance.

As always, it’s important to cycle your tank before you introduce the fish. These aren’t the types of fish that you can simply plop in some tap water.

You need to fine-tune the pH balance and stay on top of levels regularly. We also recommend changing out about a third of the tank’s volume every single week to prevent organic matter from introducing too much ammonia into the mix.

  • Water temperature: 72°F to 86°F
  • pH levels: 6.0 to 7.0
  • Water hardness: 2 to 15 dKH depending on species

Author Note: Because of their sensitivity to water conditions it’s important to have accurate information about the state of the tank. Get yourself a reliable aquarium test kit to be sure you’re making informed decisions when tweaking parameters.

What To Put In Their Tank

Setting up their tank is all about creating a space that feels natural and comfortable for your fish. Like many other fish species native to the Amazon Basin, natural decorations are always best.

Starting at the bottom of the tank, stick with fine sandy substrate. The rivers they reside in are usually littered with leaves. While you don’t need to replicate that in your tank, the fish will appreciate the sandy bottom. This species is known to dig every once in a while, so sand makes that possible without injury.

Sand is also great for keeping live aquatic plants, which are a must-have for Apistogramma. They need lush vegetation in their environment. Not only do plants act as a source of food, but they’re also great hiding places for fish that need some protection.

Java moss, Java fern, Cryptocoryne, and more are all great options. Stick with natural tropical plants.

A fast dwarf cichlid moving through a well-planted tank

You can complement those plants with some rocks and driftwood. Again, those decor items act as safe hiding spots and provide shelter from the light. It’s also a good idea to provide some caves or artificial housing options. They’ll prove to be useful if you want to breed your fish.

When it comes to equipment, a powerful filtration system is paramount. Despite their tiny size, these fish can produce a considerable amount of waste. A high-quality canister filter (such as the Fluval FX4) with carbon filtration media should help to keep the water quality in good shape.

Don’t utilize any powerful water pumps or air bladders. Apistogramma prefer low water flow. Most won’t even breed unless the water is at a near standstill (more on that later).

Common Possible Diseases

Apistogramma aren’t at risk for any major diseases that are exclusive to this genus. However, they can suffer from many common freshwater health issues, such as Ich and parasitic infections.

In most cases, these problems are directly related to poor water quality. Poor conditions cause stress, which could lead to disease and death.

This means you need to be vigilant about keeping the water quality high! As long as the water remains soft and relatively pH neutral, they should remain healthy.

Food & Diet

Dwarf Cichlids are natural omnivores. When it comes to plant-based foods, algae is often the meal of choice. They’ll also sometimes nip at plant leaves whenever they are getting hungry.

While they will eat plant foods, they largely prefer protein. However, thanks to their small stature, they don’t really get a ton of opportunities to eat meat in the wild. Most often, their diets are limited to insect larvae, small invertebrate, fish fry, and worms.

You can replicate that diet yourself by providing your fish with brine shrimp and worms. We recommend using dry pellets as well to ensure that their diet is balanced.

Stick with sinking pellets that are nutritionally dense. Keeping your fish well-fed can help keep aggression levels low as well.

Author Note: Some owners like feeding cherry shrimp to their Apistogramma. This isn’t something we do but it’s worth noting.

Behavior & Temperament

Usually, Cichlids are seen as big aggressors in the fish community. Luckily, Apistogramma don’t really fit with that profile. We would categorize them as semi-aggressive. They can be kept in tanks with other fish, but you need to plan the habitat accordingly.

This is because Apistogramma can be very territorial. Most of the disputes they have with other fish, even those of the same species, has to do with territorial boundaries.

That’s why it’s so important to give your fish ample space to swim around and hide.

These fish will spend most of their time near the bottom of the tank. Some fish will choose spots to call their own and defend it. You may also witness some aggressive behavior during times of breeding or when there’s not enough food to go around.

If you keep your fish well-fed and offer plenty of places to hide, you shouldn’t have any problems.

As we mentioned earlier, Apistogramma have large personalities. They’ll swim around playfully and may even react to your movements!

Apistogramma Tank Mates

Because Apistogramma occupy the bottom area of the aquarium, you can keep peaceful fish who stay in other parts of the tank.

Always avoid larger aggressive species. These fish can become targets very quickly due to their small size.

It’s best to keep more than one Apistogramma in the tank. More females are preferred, as males tend to show signs of aggression. Common options are to keep bonded pairs together or do a harem grouping with multiple females to one male.

Here are some of our favorite Apistogramma tank mates:

There are other options you can consider if none of the choices on our list appeal to you. However, the tank mates on our list are there for a reason. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel!

Breeding Guidelines

Breeding Apistogramma isn’t too difficult. However, you do need to provide them with the right environment to trigger the process.

These fish are egglayers. Females of some species will keep the eggs in her mouth. However, most will choose a heavily guarded spot to lay the eggs. Usually, a cave system or overturned clay pot is best.

The cool thing about Apistogramma is that they are highly protective of the baby fish. The females will do most of the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, the males will guard the breeding area.

To start the breeding process, place a bonded pair in a separate tank that’s at least 10 gallons. Reduce the flow of water in the tank by covering filters with sponges. Not only does this make the water more stagnant, but it prevents the fry from getting sucked up into the filter.

You can then raise the temperature to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. When she is ready, the female will find a nice cave and coax the male to join her. Then, she’ll lay about 80 eggs in the cave.

It only takes 2 to 5 days for the eggs to hatch. During this time, the male and female will guard the area and drive off any fish that even gets close. That’s why it’s a good idea to breed the fish in a separate tank.

Once the eggs hatch, the baby fry will eat food that the mother finds. She’ll lead them toward algae and other food sources. After a few days, you can supply baby brine shrimp to help the fry grow.

Most baby Apistogramma will reach full maturity by about 5 months old.

Wrapping Up

You should now be very comfortable with the fundamentals of Apistogramma care. Keeping these fish in your aquarium can definitely be a challenge at times, but it’s so darn rewarding!

Dwarf cichlids are a species that we intend on keeping ourselves for a very long time. There’s just something about them that we’ve fallen in love with.

If you have any questions about this fish we’d love to hear from you. There are ton of less-common types we didn’t get to cover in this guide as well, so if you think we should add more just let us know!

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