South American Cichlids

South American Cichlids Overview

South American Cichlids, or “new world cichlids”, are a group of colorful, durable species which although not as famous as African cichlids, they display a remarkable variety of shapes, colors and behaviors. An estimated number of 450 cichlid species can be encountered in rivers and lakes of South America, however 75% of the known species can be encountered in a single river, the Amazon.

Cichlids can be encountered in a variety of habitats in South American rivers, mainly classified according to the predominant water properties. Clear water rivers (or blue water rivers) have a dense substrate that is hard to dissolve and thus doesn’t release sediment to the water column. Such rivers allow the growth of plant species and have pH between 6.9-7.5 and hardness between 5-12 dH. An example of a clear water river is Rio Xingu, which is known for its rheophylic species, i.e. species that usually inhabit rivers with a high water flow. White water rivers on the other hand, have a lot of suspended sediment in their water, which creates a slightly acidic environment with a pH around 6.7-7.1 and a dH between 3-5. Due to the high turbidity of the water, light does not penetrate and one can hardly encounter aquatic plants. The Amazon river is the most famous white water river, hosting however one fifth of the world’s freshwater fish (around 2000 species). Lastly, black water rivers have a very high load of organic matter, due to the decomposition of leaves, seeds and other plant pieces that fall from the trees forming the dense tropical forests which surround these aquatic ecosystems. This creates an acidic environment, with a pH around 6 and surprising dH levels which normally are close to 0, due to the lack of minerals. Commonly to the white water rivers, aquatic plants are not usually encountered in these habitats. A famous black water river is the Rio Negro, where one can find the beautiful Chocolate cichlid.

Cichlids from South America can be classified in three main groups: Angelfish and Discus, large American cichlids, and Dwarfs. The first group is comprised of spectacular species in terms of color, shape and behavior. Most of them have a disc-shaped body and many species display incredible behaviors: many aquarists confirm that angelfish usually play with the aquarists which they seem to recognize, even getting food from their hands. The second group of species, is comprised by large predators which need large tanks (at least 70 gallons-250 L) and are also famous for their very friendly behavior towards the aquarist, with some species being characterized as the “real pets”. On the contrary, dwarfs which consist the last group of North American cichlids are small, shy and very delicate species.

Keeping South American cichlids in an aquarium is not a difficult task, however it requires sufficient planning. The first thing to take into consideration is the task, which will define the tank size. Creating a small cichlid community will require a larger tank than maintaining a couple for breeding purposes. In the case of the community, the species should also be selected properly. Large South American cichlids might be aggressive, especially when overcrowded in a small tank. Plenty of rockwork would provide refugee for smaller fish and would be a way to protect them. Moreover, plants should be adequately fixed to the bottom of the tank, as many species will uproot them. Aquarium glue could be used to glue the plants into small pots and bury them in a layer of gravel.

South American Cichlids



Axelrod H.R. 1993. The Most Complete Colored Lexicon of Cichlids

Stratton R.F. 2002. The Guide to Owning Cichlids, T.F.H. Publications, Inc.

Ulrich Glaser, Wolfgang Glaser. 1996. AQUALOG: South American Cichlids I-III


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