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Imperial Tropicals: Everything You Need To Know About African Cichlids

Cichlids are a family of fish believed to have well over 1,000 species. The term ‘African Cichlid’ is most often used to describe cichlid fish residing in the Great Lakes of East Africa such as Lake Tanganyika, Lake Victoria, and especially Lake Malawi. The variety found in Lake Malawi is most popular for home aquariums due to their diversity and wide range of designs in patterns and color.

African Cichlids tend to be more expensive than other tropical fish. If you are thinking of getting your own African Cichlid, or if you are just curious to learn more, please read on to discover the vast world of these beautiful fish.

Quick Tips | You can best care for your African Cichlid by:

  • Getting an understanding of the particular cichlid you have
  • Giving your cichlid the perfect setup
  • Introducing tankmates that will get along well with your cichlid
  • Properly feeding your cichlid
  • Maintaining a clean tank, free of hazards

If all of the above are checked off, you can expect your fish to have a long life. This guide will help you to care for your African Cichlid appropriately, keeping in mind that this unique fish has its preferred living environment, diet, and even social circle! Having your very own African Cichlids is an attainable and rewarding accomplishment.


What You Should Know?

As with any new relationship, there are a few things to be learned before embarking on future prospects or thinking about expansion. These are the things you should know in order to give a good home to an African Cichlid and keep it happy:

  • You don’t need an expensive saltwater tank.
  • Tank setup matters – they are active and if sharing a space with other fish, need spaces where they can have privacy.
  • They are great, low-maintenance house pets – these fish keep busy and offer an engaging presence
  • If you are a beginner, African Cichlids are resilient fish that can withstand any mistakes you make as you adjust to caring for them
  • There are many species of African Cichlids in the wild in comparison to the much smaller amount available as pets

Common Types of African Cichlids | Find Inspiration for Your Own Pet

It’s fascinating that African Cichlids can take up to one year to develop full color and settle into the hues they will have for the remainder of their lives. Scientists study these fish and observe their color, design patterns, temperament, and behaviors. Based on these studies, scientists have classified these fish into groups and named them.


Hap vs. Mbuna | Characteristics

Two of the main groups of African Cichlids found in Lake Malawi are ‘Hap’ (Haplochromis) and ‘Mbuna’ (or Malawi Cichlids).

Hap

  • Eat smaller fish.
  • Prefer swimming in open, unrestricted spaces.
  • Females lack or have a dull color.
  • Males have vibrant colors.
  • Somewhat territorial and moderately aggressive.

Mbuna

  • Mostly omnivorous, with a diet consisting mostly of algae and other plant matter.
  • Enjoy living among rocks and private areas.
  • Both sexes are vastly colorful.
  • More aggressive than Haps.

Peacock Cichlids
Peacock Cichlids

Peacock Cichlids

Peacock cichlids are also called Aulonocara nyassae and don’t display as much aggression as some other cichlids, but they are territorial. Peacock Cichlids have a great reputation for their distinctive colors. These fish are bottom feeders, it is rare to catch them feeding on the surface of the water.

There are different kinds of Peacock Cichlids, such as Red, Blue, and Strawberry Peacock Cichlids to mention a few.


Butterfly Cichlids

Butterfly Cichlids (Anomalochromis thomasi) are a pleasure in a home aquarium and make great roommates with other fish. They are not known to be aggressive, but they can be territorial when spawning. These cichlids are easy to spot due to the black vertical stripes on their body.


Orange Zebra

Orange Zebras also have black stripes but on an orange body. These fish are very combative with others so you will want to be very observational with new tankmates to ensure their safety. It can be difficult to tell the males and females apart.

Zebra Mbuna
Zebra Mbuna

Zebra Mbuna

Zebra Mbunas are also a very active and hostile variety of cichlids found in Lake Malawi. These fish prefer rocky zones.

Electric Blue Hap

Electric Blue Haps (Hap Ahli) is suitable for beginners because they are very easy to maintain. However, they can not be tankmates with Peacock Cichlids. Electric Blue Haps have a stunning, bold blue hue.

Electric Yellow

Electric Yellow Cichlids are also great pets for new fish owners. They are low-maintenance and are known to be docile fish. Electric Yellow Cichlids are a vivid yellow with contrasting darker fins.

Buffalo Head

Buffalo Head Cichlids are also fittingly known as ‘Blockhead’, ‘Lionhead’, and ‘Humphead’ Cichlids. These passive cichlids are known for the appearance of protruding foreheads.

Blue Dolphin Moorii
Blue Dolphin Moorii

Blue Dolphin Moorii

Blue Dolphin Moorii Cichlids are a magnificent glossy blue color. They can grow to the size of a large human hand. These cichlids are on the more peaceful side of the spectrum.

Maingano

Maingano Cichlids, another brilliant blue variety offish, have horizontal stripes and prefer living near rocky areas. By reputation, Maingano Cichlids are known to be violent, so they aren’t the best tankmates.

Kribensis

Kribensis Cichlids are another great option for beginner fish owners. These fish grow to be no more than 4 inches and are far less aggressive than some of their relatives. These fish prefer shallow water but are adaptable to different environments. It’s best not to pair these fish with other bottom-feeders to avoid competition for the territory.


Compressiceps

Compressiceps Cichlids are small but require lots of space due to their extremely aggressive nature. They are also known as the “Malawi Eyebiter”. These fish will kill any fish smaller than them.


Giraffe

Giraffe Cichlids (Venustus) are not particularly suitable for a beginner as they require a bit more precision in keeping their habitat within certain conditions, such as a specific water temperature. Due to their long bodies, as the name suggests, Giraffe Cichlids need plenty of space in their tank in order to reside comfortably.


Sunshine Peacock

Sunshine Peacock Cichlids are shades of yellow and blue, as well as resilient among changes surrounding their care and environment.

Temperament And Behavior

While the temperament of the different species of African Cichlids varies, they tend to be more aggressive than other tropical fish, such as some of the most aggressive tetras. Because of their confrontational, territorial nature, it’s crucial to be mindful when setting up tankmates.

African Cichlids are very entertaining fish as they are quite active, and many are resilient once transferred to tanks. It’s notable that even the species that are less aggressive may experience increased aggression while spawning.

African Cichlid Tank Setup

As mentioned previously, it is not necessary to invest in a high-ticket saltwater tank. It is important, however, to meet the needs of your African Cichlid by providing a suitable home.

Tank Size

African Cichlids vary in size, but they can range from about three inches to over eight inches. At maturity, fish at least six inches long should be situated in an aquarium of about a minimum of 30 gallons or more, depending on your goals for expansion.

Even fish under six inches should be provided with at least 20 gallons of aquarium space. Recall that even some of the smallest cichlids are very active and territorial while needing sufficient space for privacy among rocks.

If you are pursuing a hobby, it’s a good rule of thumb to add about three gallons of aquarium space per fish introduced into the tank. Take into account the space required for a filter and water heater, as well as any other furnishings or lighting you will introduce into the tank.

Tank Accommodations

Generally speaking, a tank should have either open water and/or areas that have rocky hideouts. The preference will depend on the species of cichlid you have, so getting to know your fish is crucial. Another element that is sometimes necessary to add to a tank is sand, as some fish seek food in the sand.

It’s especially vital to have several areas for hiding and privacy when you have more than one fish in a tank. African Cichlids, overall are territorial, so having plenty of room for each fish in the tank to get lost in is crucial to their comfort and safety.

There are many tank furnishings available on the market today, such as caves; they should be secured appropriately so as to avoid injury or crushing.

Water | Flow, Temperature, and pH Levels

There’s no place like home. With this in mind, you should make your fish tank feel like home to your African Cichlids. In addition to a water filter, there are pumps available on the market that assist with creating movements in the water similar to a natural current that characterizes that of one found in the wild – their natural habitat.

A simple thermometer can help you keep an eye on the water temperature, which should be between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The flexibility in that range is additional evidence that African Cichlids are durable, resilient fish.

Regarding the pH level of the water, the number is dependent on the particular fish you have. Water level test kits are available for regularly monitoring the pH level of your aquarium’s water, keeping in mind that in order to mimic the hard water in their natural habitats, this is necessary and in their best interest.

Tank Cleanliness

Tank cleanliness is important for more than just visual purposes. If a tank isn’t cleaned properly by changing the water every 1 -2 weeks, this can be detrimental to the health of your fish. If fish remains are present in the water with your fish for too long, it can cause their death.

A thorough and consistent tank cleaning routine is also essential because you can’t see everything that can harm your fish. In addition to changing the water, the tank should be cleaned with a sponge or cloth to get rid of any algae on the walls of the tank or any substance in the gravel.

Bacteria, funguses, viruses, and other agents can be harmful to your fish, resulting in death. Exposure to nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia are other potential threats.

African Cichlids Tank Mates
African Cichlids Tank Mates

Tank Mates

Since most African Cichlids are aggressive, avoid tank mates that will easily fall victim to these fish. It would be very unlikely for a small fish to survive surrounded by African Cichlids as they would be easy prey. Fish that like to swim in open spaces are also candidates for being attacked by African Cichlids.

In your search for African Cichlids, you will likely come across other cichlids such as South American Cichlids, that should not be housed together. Cichlids are a very large class of fish, and the care and temperaments between the species vary significantly. It wouldn’t be possible to house all types of cichlids in the same space or prevent them from attacking each other.

To keep a peaceful tank, there are a few options:

  • Keep just one species in a tank – many fish owners seek variety, but opt for this route due to the ease it affords
  • Introduce large fish that are bottom-feeding, as they will not be as defenseless as a small fish swimming in an open space of water
  • Some fish that might work as tankmates for your African Cichlids include Botia Loaches (Clown Loach). Red Tail Shark. African Red­eyed Tetra. and Scavenger (Upside-down catfish)

Dietary Needs

Fish food is the most obvious solution for feeding your African Cichlids. In addition to fish food, the different species of African Cichlids will require a variety of options. For example, insects, algae and other plant material, small fish meat worms, brine shrimp, as well as fruits and vegetables.

Getting into a feeding routine may take some practice to figure out how much food your fish needs, but you should aim to feed your fish twice daily. Overfeeding is unhealthy, increases waste, and will require you to clean the tank more often.

It’s not uncommon for African Cichlids to follow any movement they sense outside the tank. They may act on the instinct that they are going to be fed. It’s important to know exactly what their feeding requirements are because they may eat beyond what is necessary.

Health and Safety

It’s no kidding that African Cichlids are active fish, they may jump out of the water. There are some simple solutions to keep your fish safe:

  • Place the aquarium tank on a flat, sturdy surface
  • Ensure that the tank is properly sealed and in good condition
  • Place a lid on the tank

Fish are quite self-sufficient but they should still be monitored periodically to check for signs of health issues before ifs too late. Here are some clues that may indicate your fish is suffering a health issue:

  • Lack of an appetite, or not eating at all
  • Changes to the color of their scales, discoloration, or spots
  • Swelling and bloating
  • Your fish is stuck at the surface of the water
  • Reduced energy or sitting at the bottom of their tank


Fish can get sick much in the same way as humans, they can have bladder issues, tuberculosis, parasites, fungal infections, and more. The main method of transmission for disease among fish is, not surprisingly, through the water they swim in. If you have any concerns about your African Cichlids, you can take them to the vet.

Before this step, check the tank’s water quality per the specifications required for your particular species of fish. If some fish have already died in a tank, tests can actually be performed to determine what may have gone wrong in order to prevent the same from happening to the surviving fish. Veterinarians can even perform surgery on fish!

African Cichlids Lifespan
African Cichlids Lifespan

Lifespan

As with any animal or living thing, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact lifespan. However, the observed average lifespan of African Cichlids is eight years, although they can live well over ten years! Follow the recommendations above regarding tank setup, safety, and feeding in order to ensure your African Cichlid lives as long as possible.

Care for Your African Cichlids

Providing a safe, healthy environment for your African Cichlids is a rewarding experience. The presence of the fish is entertaining and calming. Observe these fish and you will marvel at their ways. We have mentioned just a few examples of African Cichlids, but there are many more known to scientists, as well as those that have not yet been classified.


If you follow the simple tips and are mindful about the health of your fish, tank safety and setup, and their social life, you can start collecting African Cichlids and provide them with a great home that is similar to their natural habitat. There is a lot to learn, but these resilient fish will be a pleasure to care for.

Do you have a favorite African Cichlid? What has your experience been like? Please leave a comment below if you have any comments or questions.

About Rencel Leyran