Venustus Cichlid Care: Size, Tank Mates, Setup & More

Venustus cichlids are wonderful-looking freshwater fish that can stand out in any home tank. And because of this, many aquarists wonder if this species is right for them.

This guide will teach you all about venustus cichlid care, so you can make this decision for yourself. We’ve covered their temperament, tank size, diet, tank mates, size, and more!

Species Summary

The venustus cichlid (Nimbochromis venustus) is a larger freshwater fish species that hails from the waters of East Africa. These cichlids predominantly live in Lake Malombe and the upper parts of Shire River, which are both parts of Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi is the ninth-largest lake in the world and is home to a diverse collection of over 500 cichlid species.

Venustus cichlid swimming in an aquarium with plants

Some of the most sought-after fish in the trade come from Lake Malawi, and the venustus cichlid is no exception. This species is nothing short of beautiful. It sports unique coloration that lends itself to many quirky nicknames.

Author Note: In addition to the venustus cichlid, you might see these fish sold under names like kalingo, giraffe hap, giraffe cichlid, or even simply “the giraffe fish.”

Whatever it’s called, the venustus cichlid prevents an exciting challenge for fish keepers. It’s considered an intermediate-level fish. While not the most challenging in the trade, its distinct care requirements require more attention than most expect.

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This fish has an eye-catching appearance you can’t help but appreciate.

It gets its “giraffe” nickname from its body’s distinct color pattern. The fish displays a camouflage-like pattern of dark brown patches against a golden-yellow base. It looks very similar to the melanic markings you see on tall giraffes.

That pattern tends to develop as the fish gets older. Juveniles are more silver before that rich golden tone and dramatic markings appear.

Females are more subdued. The pattern is still intense, but the overall color is more on the beige side rather than gold.

Males also have the distinction of vibrant blue accents. Their enormous jaws and lips are usually metallic blue. You may also see blue spots adorning the gill plate, accenting the anal fins, and more. Some fish also have subtle blue markings over the body, creating a unique contrast against those giraffe-like markings.

Author Note: Another way to distinguish between males and females is to look at the anal fins. Males often have egg spots, also known as dummy eyes. This detail is distinct, combining a high-contrast black ring with vibrant yellow.

As a whole, the venustus cichlid breed has a stocky body. It’s muscular and fitting for its semi-aggressive nature. Females are usually smaller than males, but both look strong and ready to strike!


The average venustus cichlid lifespan is around ten years when in captivity. Some fish can live a little longer, matching their 12-year life expectancy in the wild.

Many factors will impact the lifespan of these fish. Genetics will come into play for some, but all will be impacted by the quality of care that they receive.

The best thing you can do for your giraffe cichlids is to provide excellent care. Prioritize maintaining pristine living conditions and investing in a high-quality diet. With good care, there’s a better chance that your fish will reach the upper end of the life expectancy range.

Average Venustus Cichlid Size

In the wild, venustus cichlids can reach up to 12 inches long. They’re one of the larger African cichlid species living in Lake Malawi. 

In captivity, the average venustus cichlid size is around 10 inches in length. It’s certainly possible for these fish to reach the 12-inch mark in home aquariums, but it doesn’t happen often.

Author Note: The growth rate is surprisingly quick for this fish. Juveniles can grow from only a couple of inches long to half a foot long in a mere three months. Generally, the fish reach their maximum size in only nine months, but that timeline can vary based on genetics, diet, and husbandry.


Venustus cichlids are intermediate-level fish. Most seasoned aquarists won’t have any issues keeping these creatures healthy, but novice hobbyists might run into issues.

These fish have similar care needs to other African cichlids. However, they aren’t as hardy as other species you might encounter. Therefore, maintaining stable conditions and keeping up with a healthy diet is paramount.

Follow these venustus cichlid care guidelines, and you’ll be well on your way to having a healthy and thriving tank.

Tank Size

One of the most important things to do before getting your venustus cichlids is to establish an appropriately sized tank. These fish are active swimmers that require ample room to move around. Furthermore, a sizable tank is necessary to stave off aggressive behavior and keep these fish happy.

If you have young juveniles, you can go as small as 70 gallons. However, you’ll need to upgrade relatively quickly. Adults need a tank size that’s no less than 125 gallons. Most aquarists agree that starting with a 125-gallon tank or larger is the best course of action unless you have a multi-aquarium setup.

The tank should be horizontally oriented. Standard 125-gallon tanks usually measure about 72 inches across. That’s more than enough room for your fish to roam.

If possible, go bigger! A larger tank can make venustus cichlids feel more comfortable. It also gives you more wiggle room to decorate the tank and minimize line-of-sight issues. With a bigger tank and proper decor, you can keep more giraffe cichlids and even consider creating a multi-species cichlid tank.

Water Parameters

Venustus cichlids aren’t as flexible as other species when it comes to water parameters. They can adapt to different environments over time, but prefer stable conditions with minimal fluctuation.

When setting up your aquarium, model the water conditions off of what these fish would encounter in Lake Malawi. The giraffe cichlid is a rock-dwelling fish that lives in relatively deep waters. They can venture to depths 75 feet below the surface.

Lake Malawi is a mineral-rich body of water with alkaline water. They do not like acidic conditions like other freshwater species, so you must be vigilant about maintaining the pH balance and overall hardiness.

Stability is the most important thing for venustus cichlids. It’s not enough to perfect the parameters and hope for the best once you add the fish. Cichlids produce substantial bioload. After acclimating to the environment, their waste can create significant problems.

  • Water temperature: 73 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit
  • pH levels: 7.5 to 8.8 (Around 8.0 is ideal)
  • Water hardness: 10 to 15 dGH

Author Note: Monitor the parameters and perform weekly water changes of 10 to 20 percent. Water changes and a high-performance canister filter can keep ammonia and nitrates levels low, preserving water conditions and avoiding potential health problems.

Tank Setup

In addition to replicating the water conditions of Lake Malawi, try to recreate the fish’s natural habitat.

Start with a layer of fine sand or pea gravel as your substrate material. These materials are safe and facilitate some of venustus cichlid’s quirkier behaviors.

These fish use a unique hunting technique called thanatosis. Essentially, the fish buries itself in the substrate and “plays dead.” Then, they wait for a smaller fish to swim by before unveiling themselves and taking on the role of vicious predator!

An adult giraffe cichlid swimming in a large tank

The hunting behavior is more common in the wild, but it’s not uncommon for giraffe cichlids to do it in captivity, too. Use a thick layer of the substrate. At least two inches is enough to facilitate digging.

Even when they’re not hunting, cichlids are notorious for being messy. They dig into the substrate and move it around to create pits, hills, and more. 

In addition to a high-quality substrate that’s conducive to the fish’s lifestyle, add rocks, tunnels, caves, and other unique decorative items to explore. Larger rock formations and driftwood are fantastic additions. Not only are they similar to what the fish would encounter in Lake Malawi, but the items prevent line-of-sight issues.

Those items to break up the space prevent an open view of the tank, allowing these cichlids to cohabitate with others.

Preformed rock formations are available. However, you can also create them yourself with aquarium-safe cement.

Author Note: Whatever you do, make sure to anchor those larger decorative items to the glass directly instead of setting them on top of the substrate. With the cichlid’s penchant for moving sand and gravel, those objects can easily fall and crack the glass. Anchor everything down to avoid accidental damage.

You can use faux silk or plastic plants, but it’s not a good idea to use natural plants. Venustus cichlids are known uprooters. They’ll destroy any live plant you put in the tank.

If you want that vegetation, use fake plants and anchor them to the glass for security.

Round off your tank setup with a powerful canister filter and low to moderate lighting. Canister filters are some of the most effective options you can get. They’re far more efficient at removing the fish’s bioload than hang-on-back filters.

Common Possible Diseases

Venustus cichlids can fall ill with a wide range of diseases when given suboptimal care

Like other freshwater fish, one of the most common diseases they can get is Ich. Ich is a highly contagious condition caused by external protozoan parasites. It’s usually a byproduct of stress.

Their immune system suffers when the fish become stressed due to lackluster living conditions. That allows the parasite to take over. Before you know it, your otherwise beautiful giraffe cichlids will sport visible white dots all over the body!

Sadly, Ich often spreads to other fish in the tank. If left untreated, it can be fatal. If you notice one of your cichlids has the symptoms of Ich, quarantine them as soon as possible to avoid getting others sick.

Then, administer Ich medication in a hospital tank to bring your fish back to good health.

Another common disease to be wary of is Malawi bloat. Malawi bloat is a common health condition that plagues African cichlids native to Lake Malawi. It’s thought to be caused by the protozoan that lives in the fish’s intestines. It may also be a product of a secondary bacterial infection.

Either way, Malawi bloat is a serious issue. It’s a digestive condition that usually occurs when fish are fed a poor diet. It can also arise when the living conditions aren’t ideal.

Malawi bloat can cause extreme constipation. That ultimately leads to a lack of activity, changes in the fish’s appetite, and more. If not addressed, it can also cause kidney and liver disease.

If you suspect that your fish has Malawi bloat, reach out to a vet as soon as possible for appropriate treatment.

Food & Diet

Venustus cichlids are natural-born carnivores! They might eat the occasional plant-based food, but their natural diet mainly consists of small fish, insects, larvae, and other high-protein foods.

This species has a unique biological trait that helps them consume meaty foods. In addition to the normal mandibular teeth, venustus cichlids have pharyngeal teeth in their throat! Technically, those “teeth” are modified gill bones. However, they function just like teeth to help these fish process meaty foods without missing a beat.

In captivity, you can provide nutritionally balanced pellets or flakes. A high-quality formula offers a balanced diet that can help the beautiful coloration become more vivid. But if you want your venustus cichlids to reach their full potential, consider frozen or freeze-dried foods.

These fish love:

  • Shrimp
  • Mosquito larvae
  • Bloodworms
  • Whitebait
  • Earthworms
  • Minnows
  • Krill
  • Mussel meat

Author Note: The giraffe cichlid has a hearty appetite, so expect to feed them three or four times a day. Depending on the frequency of your feedings, only provide enough food for your fish to eat for about a minute. Avoid over-feeding to keep the tank conditions stable. 

Behavior & Temperament

Venustus cichlids can be aggressive, and they tend to point their aggression towards smaller fish or those that they deem small enough to eat. Keeping little, docile fish in the same tank as ventus cichlids is out of the question.

You must also exercise caution with similarly sized tank mates. They can be territorial. That’s why it’s so important to have items that break the fish’s line of sight.

With plenty of places to explore, these fish will usually keep to themselves. They might spend their day moving things around and claiming their spot in the tank. When they’re not doing that, they will often zip around the tank to explore every inch of the habitat!

Venustus Cichlid Tank Mates

The best venustus cichlids tank mates are other venustus cichlids. However, you must be careful about the male and female ratio.

Generally, keeping a single male fish with a small sorority of around six females is best. Do not keep more than one male together. That will only cause aggression and violence.

Giraffe cichlids can live in a multi-species tank. However, it’s best to stick with all African cichlids. Here are a few compatible tank mates worth considering:


Breeding venustus cichlids is not easy. Generally, it requires the right mix of males and females. A well-established group that’s lived together from a young age is more likely to breed than newly introduced pairings.

If you have a community tank, it’s best to create a nursery tank. The fish are more likely to spawn when they are away from other fish. Plus, it increases the chances of survival for the fry.

Author Note: When the male is ready to spawn, his coloration will become more vivid. You’ll also notice him preparing a sand pit or staying close to a flat rock. Shortly after, he will perform a mating ritual to attract a female.

Females lay up to 120 eggs on a flat surface. The male then fertilizes them before she scoops them up in her mouth. Giraffe cichlids are mouthbrooders.

Mothers carry the eggs for three to four weeks as they incubate. Even after the eggs hatch, she continues to hold the babies until they can swim without the egg sac. At that point, they exit her mouth and are ready to start their lives.

You can remove the adults and use the breeding tank to raise the young fry. Provide high-protein foods like baby brine shrimp and infusoria as the young juveniles grow into adulthood.

Closing Thoughts

As you can probably tell, venustus cichlid care requires a bit of experience and effort to get right. If you’re not able to dedicate the appropriate amount of time to this species (or don’t have enough room in your home), then it’s probably best to consider another freshwater fish.

But if you’re able to meet their care requirements, give the giraffe cichlid a chance! You’ll be glad you did once you see these beauties swimming around your tank.

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