What are Cichlids?

What Are Cichlids?

Cichlids (family: Cichlidae) are a group of freshwater fish species, typically encountered in South America, Africa, India and Madagascar. The family so far consists of more than 2000 species with the list increasing as more species are discovered every year. They are typically encountered in lakes and rivers, however some species have been reported in saltwater, mainly in brackish waters and coastal areas.

Members of the group can be distinguished by a number of discrete characteristics: a single nostril on each side of the head instead of two, the absence of bony shelf below the eye and the separation of the lateral line in two sections. Another very important characteristic of cichlids is their “pharyngeal jaws”, a second pair of jaws which derive from a transformation of their gills. This tool complements the mouth structure, helping to crush and process food items such as invertebrates. It has also allowed some cichlids to specialize in specific preys, leading to a great diversity of species within the family.




Cichlids display strong sexual dimorphism, i.e. females and males can be easily distinguished by special characteristics. Female and male individuals differ in color and size: males are typically bigger and more colorful than females. It is due to this great diversity of colors that cichlids are considered some the most famous ornamental fish among aquarists.

Another interesting characteristic of cichlid species is their reproductive behavior. Males and females usually engage in a stunning reproductive process including mating, spawning, fertilizing and guarding the eggs. Moreover, in most species the female collects the eggs and keeps them in its mouth, a procedure that is known as oral incubation.


Cichlid species are known for their incredible diversity, which is due to their fascinating evolution. They are considered secondary freshwater species, because their ancestors were seawater species that made their way to the freshwater environment. As a result, cichlids are extremely tolerant to high salinities, which provided them a great advantage in waters rich in salts and minerals.

The first cichlid species probably appeared in Africa some million years ago, in waters that were saturated with salts. During that time most of the continents we know today were forming a single continent called “Pangea”. Later on the several continents drifted apart and so did the several cichlid species, resulting in the distribution that they have today.




It is due to their evolution that cichlids are usually classified in two groups: the new world species and the African cichlids. The first group includes South American cichlids, cichlids from India and Madagascar, thus cichlids from continents that drifted further apart from Africa, which is considered the “old world”. Although this hypothesis seemed to explain the distribution and evolution of cichlids, recent studies in the genetic biology of certain cichlid species presented evidence that it might not be the case.

Alternatively, they suggested that some species might have crossed entire oceans, a long migration that through the years allowed the evolution of such a rich diversity of cichlids in lakes and rivers of Africa, South America and Madagascar.


Breeding Cichlids – A Fascinating and Rewarding Experience

With more than 2000 species with different needs and habits, including various breeding behaviours, 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.

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