Convict Cichlid 101: Care, Tank Mates, Size & Breeding

The convict cichlid is one of the most popular species of cichlid you can find. Due to their unique look and straightforward care requirements, it’s only natural that they’re a go-to option for many freshwater aquarists.

We’re a big fan of these fish and recommend them to anyone looking to take the next step into intermediate territory. While convict cichlids are definitely not an “expert-only” species, there are a few things you’ll need to be aware of as an owner (namely their potential for aggression).

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about convict cichlid care. Diet requirements, ideal tank mates, breeding tips, size, and growth rate are all covered in-depth.

You’ll also learn some nifty facts about this species that will make you a more informed owner!

Species Summary

Convict cichlids (Amatitlania nigrofasciata) are a freshwater species of cichlid that come from Central America. Their different types can be found in countries all along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

These fish come from lakes and streams in this region with a moderate amount of current. Their natural habitat has plenty of wood and rocks for them to use as a place to hide in between feeding. Convict cichlids are omnivores and aren’t picky when it comes to finding food!

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An interesting note is that this species can be found in Australia as well. This is not a natural occurrence and is only sustainable due to the similar conditions that certain parts of the country offer.

Because of their appealing look, convict cichlids have been sought after in the aquarium scene for many years. This has led to some concern of overfishing/capturing, but so far the population hasn’t been impacted outside of normal levels of fluctuation.


The average convict cichlid lifespan is roughly 8 to 10 years. There have been plenty of instances where these fish have exceeded this range, but that’s the average assuming proper care is given.

If you fail to care for these fish properly and keep them in an unsuitable environment, it’s unlikely that they’ll reach eight years. Always do your homework about what’s needed before purchasing one!

Author Note: Another factor that can influence the lifespan of convict cichlids is their genetics. If these fish are bred and raised by a subpar breeder, this could hinder their ability to live a long and healthy life. Purchasing from reputable sellers is an easy way to avoid this.


Convict cichlids get their name from the series of black vertical bars that run down their bodies. The coloration can vary based on age, gender, and type, but we’ll speak to the standard convict cichlid variation that most people know about.

Side view of a convict cichlid

These fish usually have around eight of these bars, but this number can be slightly higher or lower depending on genetic components. The bars are one of the most important things that sellers look for with these fish, so if you’re making a purchase from a reputable party the fish you buy will likely have plenty of well-defined stripes.

While the bars that cover the body of convict cichlids are black, the rest of the body is a greyish-blue. The hue of this color can vary slightly, but it’s usually rather consistent. Some buyers think they’re getting a different color convict cichlid when in fact it’s just the tank lighting playing tricks on them!

Convict cichlids have the classic cichlid body. They actually look pretty much like African cichlids but with a different color and pattern.

These fish have a long dorsal fin that starts about a fourth of the way back from their mouth (this point is where their pectoral fins begin as well). The dorsal fin continues to the start of their caudal peduncle and is semi-transparent. Usually, their black stripes will continue into the dorsal fin a bit too.

Convict cichlids have average-sized ventral and pectoral fins that are fairly see-through. Their anal fins begin at the midpoint of their body and stop at the beginning of the caudal peduncle.

Both their dorsal and anal fins dangle back a bit like a sail. This causes a neat visual effect when they swim and makes it quite fun to watch them.

Their caudal fin is partially transparent and average in size. None of the coloring or stripes make their way onto this fin, unlike the dorsal fin. Their caudal fin is shaped a bit like a symmetrical shell which helps them generate power and have well-rounded mobility in the water.


The average convict cichlid size is around 4-5 inches when fully grown. These fish are rather small compared to other cichlid species. The advantage of this is it means you can keep them in smaller tanks than other species as well.

Convict cichlids have a fairly normal growth rate, so there are no special accommodations you’ll need to make in that department. It’s worth noting that makes tend to be larger than females, but you won’t be able to identify their gender until they’re adults.

Convict Cichlid Care

Proper convict cichlid care requires you to have an understanding of the behavior and temperament of these fish. When it comes to their recommended tank and water requirements, these fish aren’t that challenging.

Amatitlania nigrofasciata in a well-planted tank

However, things get a bit trickier when you start thinking about planning how they’ll get along with other fish. The next couple of sections will cover the basics of setting up a suitable habitat for them so they’ll be healthy and not tempted to rumble all the time.

Tank Size

Our recommended minimum tank size for convict cichlids is 30 gallons. Some aquarists say you can get away with tanks as small as 20 gallons, but we disagree.

The extra space will go a long way when it comes to keeping these fish happy. Territorial fish that are prone to aggression tend to behave significantly worse in small aquariums. For a few extra bucks you can make your fish a lot more comfortable.

Author Note: This will impact their lifespan and general health as well. Consistently elevated stress levels take their toll over the years. Happy fish = healthy fish!

Water Parameters

The convict cichlid is a very hardy fish that can tolerate a wide range of water parameters. This makes caring for them a little bit easier and gives you a little bit of flexibility when it comes to tank mates (more on that later).

With that being said, it’s important to know their ideal parameters backward and forward. There’s always a sweet spot you should aim for!

  • Water temperature: 79°F to 84°F
  • pH levels: 6.5 to 8
  • Water hardness: 10 to 15 dH

Even though these fish are hardy it’s smart to invest in an accurate testing kit to make sure you’re getting correct readings. A bad test kit can lead you to believe there’s a shift in water parameters when there really isn’t!

What To Put In Their Tank

Setting up a tank for convict cichlids is pretty straightforward. All you need to do is try and mimic their natural environment as best as possible.

We always like to start with the substrate because it will impact the kind of plants you can include. Convict cichlids do best with a sandy substrate. This is because these fish will periodically do a bit of digging and rooting around, and a coarse substrate will end up scratching them.

Author Note: This behavior isn’t constant by any means. These fish usually spend most of their time near the middle of the tank. However, it’s smart to plan for these sporadic digging episodes ahead of time.

It’s also a good idea to include some plants in the aquarium as well. There are a ton of great options such as hornwort or even one of the best floating plant species. You have some room to be flexible when making this choice based on your own personal preference.

You might find that some plants you want to include are a bit too flimsy to handle any digging. This comes down to the individual behavior of your fish since some like to root around in the substrate more aggressively than others.

Some rocks and driftwood are also a great idea. The waters where convict cichlids come from have these in abundance. Including them will help your fish feel comfortable and give them places to hide and get their own space (this is also useful for managing aggression).

A mellow current is also something that these fish will appreciate. This isn’t something to agonize over, but if you can provide it we believe it will help keep them happy and stress-free.

Common Possible Diseases

When it comes to convict cichlid care there aren’t any diseases that go after this species specifically. While this is obviously a good thing to hear, it doesn’t mean they can’t get one of the other common freshwater illnesses.

Things like Ich or fin rot are both possibilities if these fish live in subpar conditions. We’ve addressed each of these diseases in separate guides, but they’re worth mentioning so you know to keep an eye out.

It’s always smart to give your fish a close inspection from time to time. This simply means taking an extra minute to really watch each of them and see if you notice anything out of the ordinary.

It might be a change in behavior (like malaise or disinterest in eating) or something visible on their body. For example, if your convict cichlid has Ich you’ll see white spots on their body that will progressively get worse as the disease spreads.

Taking the time to look for these signs will help you nip anything unwanted in the bud before it becomes a larger problem.

As always, the best course of action is to not let your fish get sick at all. While this might sound too good to be true, it really isn’t.

Let’s say you’re doing a great job as an owner and your convict cichlid is living in an ideal habitat with great water, food, and low stress. This means they will be far less likely to develop one of the common diseases that can possibly afflict them.

If you take convict cichlid care seriously right from the start, your fish will thank you for it later.

Food & Diet

It’s important to have a strong understanding of their diet if you want them to live as long as possible. In the wild convict cichlids are omnivores and eat a mix of insects and plant matter to get nutrition.

Because these fish are the opposite of picky eaters, beginners assume you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to their diet.

We view it a different way.

When a species eats just about anything, this can trick inexperienced owners into thinking a subpar diet is acceptable. Instead, you should realize that since they’ll eat anything you put in the tank it’s on you to find out the right dietary balance.

The ideal diet for convict cichlids is a mix of pellets or flakes with live food options as well. This will ensure that they get the necessary variety and nutritional intake to stay healthy. Our two favorite live foods to give them are brine shrimp and bloodworms.

Establishing a regular feeding schedule is recommended as well. The standard morning and night combination is fine.

Author Note: Keep an eye on how much food your fish are eating (especially early on in your ownership). Fish that happily eat anything can be prone to overfeeding. Stay consistent and disciplined with what you’re feeding them, and always look to see if there’s any food that’s not being eaten.

Behavior & Temperament

Understanding the aggressive tendencies of the convict cichlid is essential if you want to provide them with good care. These fish fit right in with a lot of their cichlid relatives and are quite territorial and feisty.

However, this isn’t something to be worried about as long as you put them in the right environment. Giving these fish enough space and pairing them with the right tank mates should keep them happy.

Their temperament is also why including hiding spots in their tank is so important. Plants, rocks, and driftwood can help give all the tank inhabitants some element of privacy. In our experience convict cichlids are much less territorial when living in a large tank with plenty of places to hunker down.

As far as their general activity level goes, this species loves to move. While they do spend a lot of their time in the middle of the tank, convict cichlids will often check out the substrate and even do some digging.

This isn’t a fish that’s afraid to investigate different areas of the aquarium. This makes for fun viewing since they always seem to be up to something!

Convict Cichlid Tank Mates

Despite their potential to be aggressive freshwater fish, you do have some options when it comes to convict cichlid tank mates.

However, it’s important to mention that this isn’t the safest possible option you can take.

If you’re someone who doesn’t want even the slightest possibility of a fight or aggressive behavior in your aquarium, keep them alone. Community tanks do come with some element of risk with this fish even if you pair them with recommended species.

One convict cichlid alone or a male and female combo are two common choices. The more you add, the higher the chance for territorial and aggression.

Also, don’t put a male and female in a community tank! This will ramp up the aggression and territorial behavior significantly and surely lead to someone getting hurt.

As far as other species go, here are some possible convict cichlid tank mates:

Author Note: If you decide to put a male and female convict cichlid in your tank there’s a strong possibility that they will breed.


Breeding convict cichlids is a breeze. They might be one of the easiest freshwater fishes to breed in a home tank!

A convict cichlid breeding pair swimming near driftwoon

The most important thing you can do is make sure their habitat is conducive to the breeding process. This means providing them with enough space (50-60 gallons ideally) and including some rocks and even a cave for the female to lay her eggs.

Once you have the general layout of your aquarium ready, simply crank up the water temperature a bit. Look at the normal range and take it up to the higher side of the spectrum (somewhere 80°F and 84°F). This should be all you need to get things started.

After the eggs have been fertilized the pair will diligently protect the eggs. This is why trying to encourage breeding in a community tank is a terrible idea. The convict cichlid parents will flat-out attack any other fish that wanders too close!

After roughly a week the fry will be ready for you to feed them (we recommend brine shrimp). It’s a good idea to separate the parents to prevent any aggressive behavior toward the little babies.


Convict cichlid care is not as hard as it seems. Once you understand their territorial and aggressive tendencies it actually becomes rather easy!

These fish are an absolute delight to own, and they’re definitely one of our favorite cichlids. Their interesting pattern and active nature make them a very entertaining species.

If you have any questions or stories about convict cichlids that you’d like us to add to the guide let us know!

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