The family of the cichlids, consists of more than 2000 species with different needs and habits, including their breeding behaviour. However most of the species are divided into two main groups: mouthbrooders and substrate brooders.
In mouthbrooding species, females incubate the eggs into their mouth after spawning and after fertilization. In the beginning of the breeding season the male starts being aggressive and chases females around the tank, in an attempt to attract them to its territory, which depending on the species can be a pile of rocks or a pit into the sand. Once a female enters the male’s territory, the fish engage in a kind of “dance” consisting of circular movements, which creates a bond between the individuals. Subsequently, the female spawns a number of eggs and immediately picks them up with its mouth. During this procedure, the male will try to fertilize the eggs, either on the ground or within the female’s mouth, depending on the species. After this procedure, the female keeps the eggs into its mouth for about 3-4 weeks and during this period it is not able to eat. While eggs will hatch 4-6 days after fertilization, the female will maintain them into her mouth as a precaution against predators, an activity known as “holding”.
Substrate brooders lay their eggs on the ground, either on the sand or hidden between rocks and within cavities. While the first parts of the breeding procedure are similar between mouth-brooding and substrate-brooding species, in the latter parental care is given by both males and females which create an exclusive bond, lasting for at least one reproductive season. After fertilization, females engage mainly in “fanning” the eggs, making circular movements with their tail above the eggs in order to oxygenate them, while male individuals protect the territory from intruders. Parental cares continues after hatching and young fries become free-swimmers after a period of 4-6 weeks.
Breeding cichlid species is an easy to moderate task. In order to be successful, one should take try to achieve three basic tasks: allowing the formation of a pair, providing suitable conditions and managing male aggressiveness.
In order to facilitate the formation of a bond between male and female individuals, it is important to create an environment similar to their natural habitat. As males are territorial, it is important to study the species ecology and provide a suitable substrate that will match the species preferences: e.g. rock dwellers will need careful rockwork while sand dwellers will need fine gravel and most probably aquatic plants. Neglecting this important aspect of the fish natural environment will not allow the male individual to create the mating territory which the very first step for successful breeding for all cichlid species.
Similarly, keeping fish healthy is of great importance. A good filtering system, a small research about the best water conditions depending on the species and regular water changes will ensure that the individuals are strong and have energy deposits to invest into mating. Food quality is another important matter. Since females need to invest a huge amount of energy and proteins in order to produce eggs, they need to be strong and resistant. It is recommended to provide fish with the best quality food, according to their specific needs, while making sure that quantity is sufficient but not excessive. Failing to estimate the right amount of food can create health problems such as the Malawi bloat which will not allow them to get involved in breeding.
Lastly, keeping the male aggressiveness in low levels can be achieved by keeping the female to male ratio at high levels within the tank: adding at least two females per male individual will prevent the male from harassing a single female and thus will reduce female injuries and improve female health. Moreover, it is important to add rocks, pots and roots in order to provide hideouts for females which otherwise will have a hard time escaping from male aggressiveness. As males sometimes keep harassing females even after breeding, many aquarists prefer isolating the female and eggs after spawning and fertilization. While it is a delicate and sometimes tricky task, it has several benefits: it keeps female stress to low levels, and reduces the changes of the female spitting or eating the eggs. Moreover, for mouthbrooding species, keeping the female separate for a small period of time after the fries become free swimming will help it to recover before returning to the tank.
Stratton R.F. 2002. The Guide to Owning Cichlids, T.F.H. Publications, Inc.