The Frontosa cichlid (scientific name: Cyphotilapia frontosa), also known as “humphead cichlid”, is an endemic species in Lake Tanganyika, widespread in the north part of the lake. It is a pelagic fish that is mainly encountered in the water column, in depths between 20-50 meters. The species can be distinguished from two main characteristics: a pronounced hump in the upper part of its head and a typical color pattern consisting of 5-7 black vertical lines crossing its body and blue, stunning fins. There are many varieties of the species with various spectacular colors which get more intense with age.
The species life span can reach 25 years and it can become fairly large, reaching 35 cm, classifying it among the largest fish among the Tanganyika cichlids. Cichlid species normally display high levels of sexual dimorphism*, however female and male individuals of the Frontosa do not display great differences, except for size, with males being usually larger. The Frontosas are slow-moving and usually live in groups. Despite being very slow, they are piscivores (i.e. eating other fish) and have an impressive feeding strategy: being nocturnal feeders, they migrate to shallower parts of the lake during the night, in order to feed on smaller fish which live at the bottom. The latter usually have slower rhythms during that time of the day, making it easy for the Frontosa to attack them and assure their meal. It is due to this feeding behavior that the species is sometimes considered a rock-dweller instead of a pelagic fish.
As the Frontosa cichlids are big, pelagic swimmers, they require a lot of space in a large tank, with a miminum size of 70 gallons (250 L). A sandy bottom would be preferable, however rocky structures and small hideouts such as small caves should be added in order to provide security to the fish which can get really aggressive when feeling in danger. Plants are not essential but since these cichlids do not usually uproot plants, they will not harm them if they are added to the tank for aesthetic reasons.
Moreover, the species commonly forms groups and thus it is much better to keep more than one individuals in the same tank. The tank size should be adjusted according to the number of fish, e.g. 5-6 individuals should be kept at a tank of at least 150 gallons (550 L). Being a gentle fish, the Frontosa cichlid can share the tank with other cichlids, however it is important not to keep it with species of very small size, as they will not hesitate to take a bite of potential tank neighbors.
The Frontosa cichlids are opportunistic feeders and thus can be fed a variety of food, including pellets and frozen food such as krill and earthworms. However, it is important to use food that sinks to the bottom, as this species never feeds on the surface; feeding on pellets and flakes that float will lead to a common problem known as “float”, caused by air swallowed by the fish. Concerning water quality, the water in Lake Tanganyika is warm and alkaline, thus temperature should be maintained at around 72-82 °F (22-27 °C) and pH between 7.8-9. Moreover, water at their natural habitat is very well oxygenated and thus oxygen flow should be kept on continuously.
Breeding of the Frontosa cichlid is a time consuming procedure that requires patience. The species reaches sexual maturity after 3-4 years, while females and males are hard to distinguish. Starting with a breeding couple seems to be the best strategy. Alternatively, one can start with 8-12 juveniles, removing the largest fish, which is most probably a male, every 6-10 months, a procedure that will leave only 5-6 females of the same size in the tank. Adding a mature male at that moment would create the best dynamics in the group to start the breeding process.
Creating a spawning territory with rocks is essential in order to facilitate spawning, especially after a female is seen with a swollen belly which is a sign of fertility. The female after establishing a bond with the male will deposit around 50-100 eggs on the sand between rocks. Subsequently the male will fertilize the eggs and guard the territory from potential predators waiting for the female to take the eggs into her mouth. The eggs will hatch in about 3-4 days and will be under the female’s care for 4-6 weeks. It is not unusual for the female to eat, or reject the eggs and this is why some aquarists prefer to remove the eggs and maintain them in a separate tank with similar conditions until they hatch. This unusual habit of female individuals is what makes breeding of the Frontosa cichlid a challenging but very rewarding task.
*Sexual dimorphism: The existence of morphological differences between males and females.
Mark Phillip Smith, Lake Tanganyika Cichlids, A Complete Pet Owners Manual, 2nd Edition, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. 2007
Richard F. Stratton, The Guide to Owning Cichlids, T.F.H. Publications, Inc., 2002
Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2015). ” Cyphotilapia frontosa”in FishBase. February 2015 version