African Cichlid Care Guide & Species Profile

Those looking to add color to an aquarium need to look no further than African cichlids.

They are an incredibly diverse group of fish and part of the cichlid family. Each species has its own pattern and coloration, so there is one to suit everybody.

This includes the peacock cichlids which are some of the most colorful fish available.

These fish are generally harder to look after compared to other popular tropical fish. They are bigger and much more aggressive than tetras, guppies, and gouramis.

Adding these fish to your tank will brighten it up, as well as keeping it looking active and social.

Free exclusive bonus: Download the African Cichlid eBook to learn everything there is know about caring for this fish.

African Cichlid Facts & Overview

Peacock Cichlid

Care Level:Intermediate
Lifespan:Up to 15 years (species dependent)
Size:3-8 inches
Diet:Depends on the species
Minimum Tank Size:30 gallons
Tank Setup:Freshwater: rocks and caves
Compatibility:Depends on the species

African cichlids belong to the Cichlidae family, which includes all other cichlids. Cichlids are one of the most diverse groups of fish and many species can be found in Africa.

There could be over 1500 species, but most of these still need to be described by scientists.

South America is also home to lots of cichlid species; there are even some that live in Asia.

Nearly all African cichlids live in one of three great lakes in East Africa: Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika.

The most popular species for home aquariums are from Lake Malawi.

The reason that they are so popular is that they’re some of the most colorful fish available.

Each species has its own patterns and colors, so there will always be one that suits you and your tank.

Another bonus is that they are quite hardy. This helps them to survive any beginner mistakes or any situations beyond your control.

Their bright colors and social lifestyle make them an ideal way to liven up a tank.

Many fish stores will sell some African cichlid species. You may have to look around a while before you find the rarer and larger species.

They are generally more expensive than most other tropical fish. Prices will increase further for the more colorful or larger species.

Cheaper species can cost around $5-$15, while some sell for over $100. Healthy adults will be more expensive than juveniles.

How Long do African Cichlids Live?

It depends on the species, but most should live for around 8 years in an aquarium.

Typical Behavior

They are very active fish. Whenever they sense movement outside of the tank, they will follow it in the hope that they are about to be fed.

This behavior can make you feel like you’re underfeeding them since they’re always looking for food. Don’t let this trick you into overfeeding them as they would happily keep eating well beyond what they need.

Their active lifestyle makes them good swimmers, to the point where they can jump out of the tank; however, they probably won’t do this unless they get spooked or provoked.

Another thing to consider is their aggression. They can be territorial at times, especially when mating, which can lead to the death of weaker fish in the tank.

To try to reduce fights, make sure that there are plenty of hiding places in your tank. This gives your fish somewhere to escape and also gives them a territory to claim.

During the search for food, they may dig into the substrate or dig up decorations in the tank. This shouldn’t cause too many problems, as long as anything you place in the tank is well secured in the substrate.

Digging isn’t just for scavenging, some species use it as a hunting strategy.

Livingston’s cichlid (Nimbochromis livingstonii) burrows slightly into the sediment and plays dead until an unsuspecting prey passes by.

Many of these cichlid species display unique behaviors.

Types and Appearance

Yellow African Cichlid
Yellow African Cichlid

We’ve mentioned how there are lots of varieties of cichlids, each with their own patterns and colors.

If we tried to describe them all, then you’d be reading this for days. So, here are some of the most common varieties:

African Butterfly (Anomalochromis thomasi)

The African butterfly cichlid originates from the rivers of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. An adult will reach up to 3 inches and display five vertical black bars down the length of its body.

The bars are complemented by horizontal rows of spots that can be a few different colors, usually blue or green.

This is one of the most suitable breeds for first-time cichlid keepers. It is peaceful, not very demanding, and quite easy to breed.

Yellow African (Labidochromis caeruleus)

Though it’s not able to produce electricity, this cichlid’s bright yellow color might trick you into thinking so.

The fins have black tips which really stand out against the yellow; the dorsal fin starts behind the head and spans the full length of the body.

A fully-grown adult will usually reach just over 3 inches. This is another example of one from Lake Malawi.

The electric yellow African is a small fish and much less aggressive than other cichlids. This makes it easier to look after and is more accepting of other fish that you add to your tank.

African Peacock Cichlid (Aulonocara nyassae)

22 species of peacock cichlids have been described, all from Lake Malawi. These fish display a range of bright colors like a peacock’s tail, hence the name.

It is the males that display most of the color while the females often look drab in comparison. Sizes usually range from 4 to 6 inches.

These fish are ideal for somebody who’s looking for a colorful tank. Some species are more aggressive than others, so research the species you want before buying.

Orange Zebra Cichlid (Maylandia estherae)

This is another example where the name could use a little more imagination, though it is very fitting. A vivid orange covers the body.

Sometimes the fins share the same black tips that the electric yellow cichlid has. A rounded head is at the front of a body that can grow to over 5 inches in the aquarium.

Unsurprisingly, this is also from Lake Malawi, as most of the brightest colors seem to be.

They will be aggressive tankmates, so they should only be kept by experienced fish keepers. They don’t grow too big, but a larger tank will help to reduce aggression.

General Appearance and Color Varieties

If you are raising them from fry, then you may have to wait a while before they start showing their colors off to their true potential.

Sometimes this can take up to a year, but this will vary between species and even between individuals.

The brightest colors will come when they are kept healthy. The colors will get brighter during mating and times of aggression or dominance.

Males are usually more colorful than females; they need to be attractive to females when mating. Females will either be plainer or have duller coloration/patterns.

All cichlids have teeth, but each species will have a different set depending on their diet.

Some have evolved smaller rows of teeth for scraping off algae from rocks; others have more fang-like teeth for catching small fish.

Every 100 days or so they will regenerate their teeth to replace any that have been lost or damaged, scientists are studying this to help with dentistry.

Regardless of the species, some will bite you and some won’t; you just have to get to know your particular fish.

How Big Do African Cichlids Get?

Most will grow between 4-6 inches in length once fully matured.

Habitat and Tank Conditions

Cobalt Blue Zebra Cichlid
Cobalt Blue Zebra Cichlid

Most African cichlids kept in home aquariums are rock-dwellers. In the wild, they’d have little hideaways in the gaps between rocks.

You need to know how to set up your tank like this at home.

The best way to recreate this in an aquarium is to use rocks too. Make sure they’re placed securely so they don’t collapse (you can buy aquarium-safe glue to stick your rocks together).

Since they are known to dig, a fine-grained substrate would be best so that it won’t scratch their scales.

The water in the aquarium should be moving, but the filter outlet will be enough to create a small current.

Species from rivers might appreciate water or an air pump to create a stronger current.

African cichlids need a water temperature of 75-85°F and a pH of 7.8-8.6 should keep most species healthy.

Africa’s great lakes have quite hard water, 4-6 dH, so try not to use soft water in your tank. Moderate lighting is fine for them.

You don’t need any specialist equipment, just a filter, and heater strong enough to work in the right sized tank. The filter should process all of the water in the tank 3-5 times in one hour.

We don’t recommend an under gravel filter. They tend to need a larger grain size on top of them and the digging nature of cichlids means you’ll have to be on the lookout for any exposed areas.

Plants often get nibbled in your tank, so they have to be able to withstand it. Java fern, Anubias, and Amazon Swords will stand the best chance.

What Size Aquarium Do They Need?

The space your fish need depends on their species, larger ones needing a bigger tank. 30 gallons will be enough for most, but make sure to check what each species needs.

The small electric yellow cichlids (3 inches) will be happy in a 30-gallon tank, whereas the larger blue cichlids (8 inches) are better off in a 50-gallon tank.

Use this as a guide to judge the best tank size for your species, remembering that a larger tank is always best and will reduce aggression.

How many Cichlids Per Gallon?

The amount of cichlids you can keep depends on the species.

30 gallons is enough for a small cichlid, add another 3 gallons per cichlid that you add. Always thoroughly research the species you want to keep because some are much larger than others.

Tank Mates

African cichlids are territorial, so any open-water swimmers are likely to be attacked at some point.

If you want to mix them with other fish, they need to occupy different regions of the tank so that they don’t enter cichlid territory.

Bottom-dwelling fish can make good tank mates, as long as they match the cichlids for size and aggression. Good examples are African catfish, they are fast-swimming, large, and aggressive enough to defend themselves.

Any small fish (such as tetras) will become a meal.

Don’t mix African cichlids with South American cichlids (such as the convict cichlid).

They have evolved in different parts of the world so they have different immune systems, this means that species from one region can make the other sick.

Most of the time, only one species of cichlid is kept per tank to avoid fighting. If a tank is big enough then more species could be added, but this will always be a risk.


African Jewelfish Feeding
African Jewelfish Feeding

African cichlids eat different things in the wild such as plants, insects, and meat. Most species will happily accept both plants and meats in the aquarium.

Peacock cichlids are insectivores, meaning that most of their diet is made up of insects. Some species of the Tilapia genus are herbivores, mainly eating plants and algae.

The rest will either eat fish or a mixture of the three diets.

The African butterfly would naturally eat small fish, whereas Electric yellow cichlids are more omnivorous, eating plants and the occasional fish.

Always research the specific species of fish you want to keep to ensure you can provide them with a suitable diet.

Though they have different diets in the wild, in the aquarium they will all be happy eating flake foods bought from stores. You can add in their natural preferences alongside fish foods.
These include frozen foods, live foods (fish or insects), or algae wafers.

Those species that spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank will enjoy wafer or pellet foods. This will encourage their natural behavior of sifting through the substrate for food.

Bloodworms can be used now and then to mix up their diet. Species that are used to a more herbivorous diet will enjoy raw fruit or vegetable matter that you have around the house.


Mix of African Cichlids

Diseases aren’t uncommon when looking after fish. It’s important to know what to look out for in your tank to give yourself the best chances of saving any ill fish.

African cichlids are a large group of cichlids, so they could be affected by many diseases. Some common ones are:

  • Cotton Wool Disease: White growths caused by a fungus, more likely in poor water conditions.
  • Gill Flukes: A flatworm parasite covers the gills with slime, causing breathing difficulties.
  • Hexamita: Symptoms include a loss of appetite and lesions, causes are thought to be a parasite and poor water quality.
  • Malawi Bloat: Abdomen swelling that can lead to kidney or liver problems.
  • Swim Bladder Disease: Caused by a physical injury or poor nutrition, it leads to difficulty for a fish to stay submerged.
  • Tuberculosis: It can be identified by white blotches and a loss of appetite, it’s highly contagious and often fatal.
  • White Spot (Ich): Caused by a parasite that produces white spots on the victim.

Mixing African with South American cichlids can increase the chances of getting a disease because they have evolved different immunities.

They don’t have any extra special requirements when it comes to their care, just make sure that you clean the tank and do water changes every 1-2 weeks to keep nitrates down.


Under the right conditions, many species can breed in captivity.

All Cichlids lay eggs and most will lay their eggs in the safety of a cave and guard them until they hatch (substrate spawners).

Some species are mouthbrooders. This means they hold the fertilized eggs in their mouth until they’re ready to hatch. It takes about 21 days.

Once hatched, a female will look after the fry for a week or two, but after that, they must fend for themselves and the female is able to breed again.

It is hard to say when the young are fully matured because everyone has different experiences.

Some may show their full colors within 3 months and be able to breed within a year, but this will not be the case for everyone.

African cichlids have strong parental instincts and usually become much more aggressive during breeding times.

These parental instincts can sometimes be lost, they will eat each other or even their own fry.

To stop this from happening you can separate the parents and the fry using a breeding tank.

To attract a mate they usually perform some sort of courting ritual involving specific movements and a display of colors. This can be an impressive sight to watch.

To encourage your cichlids to breed, you need to make sure that their environment doesn’t change. This means no aqua-scaping, no addition of new fish, and no changes to the water parameters.

Cichlids are able to cross-breed (hybrid speciation), which is where two different species will mate. This is much more common in captivity because females are surrounded by fewer males of their own species than they would be in the wild.

Are African Cichlids Suitable for your Aquarium?

If you’re looking for an addition to a peaceful community aquarium, then African cichlids are not for you.

These are aggressive fish that should only be kept with other large, aggressive fish.

If you’re looking to start a tank that is full of color and activity then these fish are the perfect candidates.

These are some of the most colorful fish in the world and can brighten up any room.

An experienced fish keeper shouldn’t have a problem looking after cichlids and will quickly discover why they are some of the most popular fish in the hobby.

What is your favorite African Cichlid? Let us know in the comments below…

About Robert 394 Articles
Robert Woods is the creator of FishKeeping World, a third-generation fish keeper, and a graduate in animal welfare and behavior. He is also a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America, and the Nature Conservancy.


  1. Richard Butler says:

    Thank you. Only a couple things I wasn’t already aware of. Like the size ranges and suitable tank mates. Like to hear more possible tank mates tho. Mine are convicts. Biggest one is ( by eye ) 4¼ in and growing. Birthday. Lol. Her mate was Fred. Had to breeding’s. Turned 2 fish into 30 pretty quick. Lol. Now I’m onto twp tanks. 60 and a 29 soon to be a 55. Have the tank gotta build a stand. ( Commercial stands are simply a desaster waiting to happen)

    • Charlotte Knight says:

      Can cichilds Have snails in the aquarium to keep it clean or what would you recommend because they don’t keep it clean with Alage what could I put in there????

      • Fishkeeping World says:

        Hi Charlotte, Bristlenose’s make great tank makes for African Cichlids, and are also excellent algae eaters. Thanks, Robert

      • Kyle says:

        To keep snails with cichlids you need numbers, not size. The smaller the better. Get plenty of them, as many will become a snack. Dont get too many though as they will multiply at an alarming rate. You can often get snails from pondkeepers because they are a nuisance and overpopulate ponds.

  2. Ron Thompson says:

    I began more than 20 years ago with cobalt zebras. I still love keeping the fish from Malawi though I have read and studied all of the others. This time around I began with different varieties of the zebras: orange, blue, blotched; and two melanochromis johanni – about 6-8 fish altogether. The johannni took off — I have about a dozen or more. The zebras I totally expected to breed and they have inter-bred which as an amateur fish keeper intrigues me with the different colors and patterns. Just to add to your excellent advice: begin with the largest aquarium you can afford; use pebbles for substrate (which they still move but not as easily); the best power filter you can get (cichilds are dirty and their size increases the waste); and rocks and Java Fern provide plenty of hiding spaces. With as many fish as I have now, I have to clean the 75 gallon aquarium once a week, but the fish provide a beautiful display of aquatic nature. Great hobby!

    • Fishkeeping World says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with us Ron. I’d love to see pictures of the zebras you’ve bred! Robert

  3. Neil says:

    I have been planning the set up of an aquarium at home (my first aquarium) for some time now and, having considered at lots of different options, I feel I am getting close to making a decision. However, I have quite a few questions. If I could get some advice, it would be really appreciated. Thanks in advance.
    1. I am looking at a Flex Roma 125L (33 gallons) 80Wx35Dx50H. Any opinions on this tank/size/brand?
    2. PLAN A: I am interested in keeping some cichlids. In particular yellow labs/African cichlids as they seem to be the easiest. And they are really colourful. Any thoughts?
    3. How many yellow labs could I sensibly keep in the above tank?
    PLAN B: Another consideration could be to mix them with electric blue cichlids or cobalt blue zebra cichlids. I understand these are both a little more difficult to keep. Any thoughts? If yes, how would you mix them with the yellow labs? 50:50? Mostly lemon labs and 2/3 blue cichlids?
    4. I understand sand and rocks are the most natural habitat for these fish. What’s the thought on plants? Are they necessary?
    I’m a fan of quite minimalist aquariums, so would probably choose to not put in plants if I could – or put in something small. What about an easily manageable moss?
    5. In terms of maintenance, I’m assuming a water change of about 25% every 2 weeks. I assume as they are larger fish, they will make more waste, so I’d need to “hoover” the bottom too. Any advice on this area, would be really helpful.

    • Fishkeeping World says:

      Hi Neil, thanks for your question. It’s nice to see a beginner putting so much thought into setting up an aquarium. We recommend that Cichlids are only kept by people with some experience in the hobby. Have you considered keeping any other fish first? Thanks, Robert

    • Ryker says:

      Yes, you will need plants. Since cichlids are aggressive they will need a place to hide. Artificial plants should work. I guess you could Maybe do without plants if you have a ton of hiding spots in the rocks

  4. Cheryl Fulghum says:

    how long will a mated pair of African cichlids raise their young? I had a pair raising them in a 125 Community tank and it seems like one of the mates has left. the male I believe is raising the young Now by his self

  5. Jett says:

    im pretty keen to breeding fish and am about to buy a tank for that pourpose, do you have any recommendations for breeding the african cichlid? Thankyou

  6. Nancy Fussell says:

    I have had yellow labs for 15 years in my tank. The original 3 bred several years ago and I traded some in for a store credit. Accidently traded the female in the scoop up. All was fine with few I kept except now all of a sudden I am loosing fish. Doing same care as always. Is it just they are likely just old now? Only two smaller fish from original fry 2nd bred group and it is larger that are dying. The original male (yes over 15 years old) was the last to succumb. Just read they only live 8 years in captivity….. then why did mine live so long and why now dying?

  7. Kathy says:

    I have 125 Malawi cichlid tank. Fine gravel substrate – eco-complete, tank was previously planted. Adult male bumblebee, red zebra approaching 6” size. No clue how many are in there – rock scaped and tons of hiding places – and they keep making more. At least 30 – 4 large, 5-6 medium, 15 small, at least 20 very young small. 1 8” feather cat, 2 6” plecos (holdovers). The only way to get them out would be to dismantle the whole thing. Currently training them to swim into a net so I can catch overstressed girls when necessary.

    So – do I let them continue to breed and sort out their own crowding and karma or should I take some action? Water quality very good, almost no aggression.

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