All Cichlid species belong to the family Cichlidae, each having its own characteristics and requirements. There are at least 1300 scientifically described species, though numerous new species are discovered annually and many species remain undescribed. Thus, the actual number of species is unclear, with estimates varying between 1300 and 3000 species. Cichlids have become quite popular freshwater aquarium fish as most are small to medium sized, have a beautiful variety of shapes and colors, breed readily and practice brood care in captivity. Some of the most popular aquarium fish are Cichlids, including freshwater Angelfish, Discus fish, Oscar fish and Convict Cichlids. Thus, Cichlid breeding has become quite popular as more aquarist try breeding Cichlids themselves.
Cichlids are found throughout the world, including Africa, Asia, South America, Central America and even North America. Thus Cichlids are often categorized by their region, in which there are three main groups of Cichlids: African Cichlids, South American Cichlids and American Cichlids. African Cichlids mostly come from the Great African Rift Lakes: Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. Take a look at the fish from Africa at the site The Cichlid Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa. South American Cichlids are found throughout the Amazon River Basin, while American Cichlids are found mostly across Central America and a few species in North America.
Are you interested in seeing cichlids in their natural habitat? Find out more information about cichlids at the American Cichlid Association website.
While Cichlid breeding can be accomplished easily for some Cichlid species, it can be quite difficult with others, requiring special conditions and care. Cichlid breeding is much easier and produces far greater results when the Cichlids are well taken care of and given conditions similar to their natural habitat. Thus, perhaps the most essential element in Cichlid breeding is keeping the aquarium clean and maintaining the conditions required by that particular cichlid. The fish will be much healthier and it will induce them to mate more readily.
The most basic of equipment for Cichlid breeding is the fish tank itself. The size entirely depends on the fish, room, budget and preference. Research the Cichlid you are interested in keeping and look at the requirements. Personally, I always go with tanks bigger than what is “required” to give the fish more freedom and comfort.
Filtration is a big factor in maintaining good water conditions for Cichlid breeding. Which filter to use for Cichlid breeding entirely depends on the setup, fish and preference. For a pairing, show or grow out tank under 150 gallons a power filter is usually best. I’m a fan of the Penguin BIO-Wheel filters, as they have been the most efficient and easiest to use, not to mention rather cheap. For my 55 gallon tanks I use the Penguin 350, and Penguin 150 for my 20 gallon planted tank. Two Penguin 350s will work great for up to 150 gallon tanks, but anything beyond that you will probably want to look into high-capacity canister filters like the Eheim 2028 Pro II. While canister filters are more complicated and costly, they allow customization of the filter media, making the filtration much more adjusted to your specific needs.
The pulling force of both power and canister filters might harm or even consume the fry, the water current could also cause severe complications to the developing fry as well. Thus, for a Cichlid breeding/fry tank I would recommend sponge filters, as they are entirely safe for the fry. You’ll need a sponge filter, air pump and airline tubing; I suggest a Whisper Air Pump as they are fairly priced and one of the only air pumps that actually make good on their claim of being near silent. The sponge filter will need to be established, the best way to do this is to run it in a pre-cycled tank for about three weeks. Bacteria will colonize on the sponge and this will help biologically filter the water. If you don’t have another tank and this is a new project, just use the new filter when cycling a tank, once the tank is cycled and ready for Cichlid breeding the sponge filter should be as well. To clean the sponge filter just squeeze it in some old tank water when doing a water change, never clean it with tap water, as the chlorine will kill the beneficial bacteria.
A fully planted tank will aid in filtration as ammonia, nitrite and nitrate are among the nutrients that plants use. This will help keep the beneficial bacteria levels in check and if something happens to your beneficial bacteria there is a buffer present to minimize the problem. A fully planted tank will also induce spawning as it will replicate their natural environment and also allow for hiding and spawning locations. If you do decide to keep plants I would start with an easy to keep low light plant such as Water Sprite, which grow like a weed pretty much regardless of your setup (it will literally grow out of my tank if I don’t prune it). A stock fluorescent light fixture left on 8-12 hours a day should be enough to grow it in most setups, we’ll be doing a whole guide on starting a planted aquarium in the coming weeks. Nonetheless, I suggest keeping it minimal and focus on Cichlid breeding foremost.
African Cichlids enjoy alkaline water conditions, South American Cichlids can be found in exceptionally soft and acidic blackwaters, while American Cichlids usually inhabit water ranging from neutral to alkaline. If your water isn’t well suited for African Cichlid breeding you can get African Cichlid pH buffer, which will stabilize the aquarium pH to 8.5 as well as condition the water with elements found in their natural habitat. This can help, but usually isn’t greatly needed. However, for South American Cichlid breeding it is a bit more essential, especially for very delicate fish such as the Discus fish.
Peat moss can be a great way to naturally lower the pH of your aquarium, which I personally use in my planted freshwater Angelfish tank. You can buy some from any garden center for rather cheap, if they happen to not have any you can buy some online, after that put some in mesh bag (cut off panty hose also works) and place it in the compartment where the filter pad sits so water can flow through it.
If you would rather not deal with peat moss, blackwater extract contains natural humic and tannic acids that simulates water conditions of the Amazon River basin created by soil, peat moss and decaying vegetation. It makes for better water chemistry, encourages spawning, aids the hatching process and tints the water a light brownish yellow color just like the Amazon River, which is pretty cool looking.
Regular water changes are critical to maintaining a good water chemistry for Cichlid breeding. How often and how much water to change is quite debatable. For my fully planted tank I do 33% (1/3) water changes every two to three weeks; for a loosely or non-planted tank I would advise weekly water changes. Ultimately this differs for Cichlid breeding according to the species and each breeder has a different philosophy on water changes, so you can experiment with what works for both you and your fish. I am a huge advocate of the Python water siphon, years ago I had to lug around heavy buckets of water to change the water in my aquariums but this makes it incredibly easy and saves a lot of time as well, it is an amazing investment.
A heater to maintain consistent water temperature is essential for Cichlid breeding. I prefer Visi-Therm Deluxe heaters as you can set the desired temperature and forget about it. With older heaters it was trial and error until you got the correct setting, but that’s no longer necessary. Quite amazing how aquarium equipment has evolved over the past decade.
Cichlid breeding also requires quite the diverse diet, many primarily feed on algae and plants while others are primarily carnivorous and prey on smaller fish. With the latter it is important to choose their aquarium mates carefully, more so for Cichlid breeding as that could create quite the debacle. Only healthy fish will readily mate. Furthermore, many female Cichlids such as mouthbrooders do not eat during the incubation, which may in some cases last up to four weeks. Only a fish that is in good health will be able to endure such abstinence from food.
Many foods formulated specifically for Cichlids are available. I personally use Wardley’s Cichlid Advanced Nutrition, it’s higher quality than most common flake foods and seems to hold its own against some of the more expensive foods. Furthermore, it comes in pellet form, which is critical for me. I dislike flake foods for the most part, as they eventually deteriorate into dust and it also creates quite a bit of mess. I find the pellets to be much cleaner and cost effective, the fish also seem to respond to them more as it is easier to see and eat.
Fish should be conditioned before Cichlid breeding, which is to provide a variety of live, dry and frozen foods to get them in top condition for spawning. There is a wide variety of great live foods like tubifex worms, bloodworms, brine shrimp and beef heart. Fish love live foods and they are quite beneficial for them; however, try to feed these carefully to avoid an unbalanced diet. If you would rather not deal with live food, freeze-dried foods are entirely safe, cheap and easy. Feeding your Cichlids a rich varied diet is not only healthier but it will thrive and bring out much better colors.
Types of Cichlid Breeding
Cichlid breeding is fascinating due to the parental behavior and highly organized breeding activities of Cichlids. Cichlid breeding usually consist of a mating system that is either monogamous or polygamous. Though communal parental care has also been observed for a number of Cichlid species, which is where multiple monogamous pairs care for a mixed school of young. For example, the Brichardi Cichlid (Neolamprologus brichardi) is a species that commonly lives in large groups and the fry are not only protected by the adults, but also by older juveniles from previous spawns. All species show some form of parental care for both eggs and fry, often extended to free-swimming young until they are several weeks or months old. Cichlid breeding parental brood care falls into one of three categories: open brooding, cave brooding, and mouthbrooding.
Open brooders spawn on open surfaces like rocks, plant leaves, logs or substrate. Open brooding Cichlids are quite common in Cichlid breeding, including Discus fish, German Blue Ram and freshwater Angelfish. In general, biparental open brooders usually engage in differing roles in Cichlid breeding with regard to protection and raising of the fry. Most commonly, the male parent protects the pair’s territory, while females tend to the fry by fanning water over the eggs, removing infertile eggs and eventually leading the school of fry while foraging. Despite this, both sexes are able to perform the full range of parenting behaviors. Parental behaviors such as leaf-turning and fin-digging have been observed in Cichlid breeding for a number of South American Cichlid and American Cichlid species. Open brooders tend to lay more eggs (sometimes as much as 10,000) than cave brooders (around 300).
Cave brooders lay their eggs in caves and in depressions, thus Cichlid breeding becomes quite easier if mouthbrooders are provided with sheltered areas where they can spawn. Rocks, plants and pots can be used to provide them with these hiding places. Communication between free-swimming fry and parents has been observed for a number of open brooding and cave brooding Cichlids in captivity and in the wild. Frequently this communication is based on body movements, such as shaking and pelvic fin flicking. Kribensis and Convict Cichlid are both popular examples of cave brooders.
Mouthbrooders are commonly known to carry the eggs and the fry in their mouths. However, there are actually two types of mouthbrooders: ovophile and larvophile. Ovophile mouthbrooders incubate their eggs in their mouths as soon as they are laid and frequently continue to brood free-swimming fry in their mouths for several weeks. Many of the African Cichlids endemic to the Great African Rift Lakes (Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria) are ovophile mouthbrooders. While larvophile mouthbrooding species lay the eggs in the open or in a cave, and upon hatching take the larvae into the mouth.
Regardless of whether ovophile or larvophile, the vast majority of mouthbrooding Cichlids are maternal mouthbrooders, meaning the female mouthbroods the young. The female releases the fry depending on a number of factors such as her species, her age, and the state of her health. Water quality is a factor of health, water temperatures of about 76-78°F and alkaline water will aid in the hatching of the eggs and African Cichlid breeding. Much like the cave brooders, Cichlid breeding is much easier with mouthbrooders if provided hideouts, this is due to needing more than usual protection when they are egg-laden.
For your first attempt at Cichlid breeding, the young inexperienced females are not likely to carry the eggs for the full term, after that first time they learn to breed successfully. Raising and harvesting of mouthbrooding Cichlids can be done in several ways, with the best method being to simply allow the mother to spit out the fry naturally in a separate tank. Here she does not have to worry about other adults who may eat the fry, thus the survival of the fry is almost certain unless the mother herself consumes the fry. In which case it would be best to transfer the mother to another tank once she has released the fry.
Now that we’ve gone over Cichlids, Cichlid breeding systems and Cichlid care it is time to pick a Cichlid to breed if you haven’t already. Which to choose really comes down to preference and limitations. Cichlid breeding can be quite costly for some Cichlids, requiring much more than others, such as tank size, water conditions and other equipment, but most of all skill and effort.
For your first attempt at Cichlid breeding I would suggest starting with something that can be kept and bred easily. A fish as delicate as the Discus fish, for example, isn’t a great choice to start out with as it can be quite overwhelming to someone inexperienced. Convict Cichlids are a great fish to start with, as they are very easy to breed, hardy and only grow to be around four inches, so tank requirements are not too demanding. German Blue Rams, Kribensis and even freshwater Angelfish are also not too difficult to breed for someone already experienced in keeping fish.
Once you have chosen your Cichlid you will need to actually get the fish. You can get them at your local pet store, through a fish breeder or order them online. Personally I was quite skeptical of buying fish online myself, but over the last few years I have ordered plants and fish from several sites and other breeders with nothing but great results. Recently I bought a large school of Gold Tetras for my 20 gallon planted tank from LiveAquaria.com, all came in great condition. Buying online is a great option when you can’t find the fish locally or if you are like me and live around sub-par pet stores that don’t care for their fish.
While it varies for each species, in general when buying the fish it is helpful to get several females for each male, as this way the male’s bullying does not get restricted to just one female. Otherwise, this could cause stress among the weaker fish and for Cichlid breeding it is essential that your Cichlids are not stressed.
Determining the sex of a fish is quite an important step in Cichlid breeding. Most fish can be classified as either sexually dimorphic or isomorphic. In sexually dimorphic species, the sex can be easily distinguished by primary (shape of sex organs) and secondary differences (size, color, shape, finnage). Males are usually larger and have more elaborate color and finnage. While in sexually isomorphic species there are little, if any, apparent sexual differences. Often, the only way to distinguish between the sexes is the shape of the genital papilla, which is only visible around spawning times. In some isomorphic species, the males are slightly larger and the females are slightly rounder in the belly.
While it is difficult to sex isomorphic Cichlids, it can be done with experience. This pays off quite well as it will limit the amount of fish needed. One can buy as many males and females as needed instead of buying a group large in hopes of getting a good ratio. Obviously in dimorphic species this is much easier, though it still may take a bit of experience with the fish to know what to look for.
Once males and females have been distinguished, a suitable pair or spawning group will either develop or can be chosen, depending on the species. There are several important traits to seek in choosing the parent fish, one being to choose fish that display the most vibrant colors and markings, thus producing the most attractive young. Also, only use healthy and mature fish for Cichlid breeding as unhealthy fish, if they will spawn, may produce unhealthy or deformed young.
Be sure that the pair is compatible, many species cannot simply just be put together in a Cichlid breeding tank and be expected to produce young. In fact with many Cichlids, pairs form only after a group has been raised together for months, if not years. In certain species, one partner will bully the other to death if they do not develop a “bond”. Some species can be bred to produce hybrids, though most are sterile and some even have health complications, which will be discussed shortly.
Raising the Fry:
When the eggs hatch, the fry that emerge look nothing like the parent fish. Usually they have a large yellow yolk sac and are barely able to move, let alone swim. The fry will feed off the egg sac until all the yolk is gone, then they will begin to look for food. Several Cichlids including Discus fish and Uaru species are noted to feed their young with a skin secretion from mucous glands.
At first fry can be fed very small foods like Frozen Daphnia, Hikari First Bites, liquid fry food and Baby Brine Shrimp. Baby Brine Shrimp play an important role in Cichlid breeding, as they are the main food used to feed fry of most Cichlids. There is frozen Baby Brine Shrimp, instant Baby Brine Shrimp and of course hatching your own, which I am a huge advocate of. You can buy a hatchery kit or build your own (which we’ll show you in a future article) using a 2 liter bottle, an air pump, airline tubing, aquarium salt, Brine Shrimp eggs, Brine Shrimp net and Brine Shrimp food. Once the fish grow larger they can eat chopped Tubifex Worms, mini Bloodworms, Brine Shrimp and small flakes. The fry should be fed several times a day.
Around 25-50% of the water in the Cichlid breeding tank should be changed daily according to the species. Be sure that the “new” water added has characteristics like the water taken out, because fry are quite sensitive to sudden changes in the water chemistry. Many species need periodic sorting by size, so that larger fish do not cannibalize smaller fish. The fry will grow rapidly with good water conditions and frequent feeding with a good diet. It is best to cull unhealthy and deformed fish.
Selling the offspring is a normal part of the hobby, usually so many Cichlids are bred that you have to just to make room for the next few spawns. There are many ways you can sell your Cichlids, you can sell or trade them to other Cichlid breeders, sell them to pet stores, or sell directly to hobbyists both online and offline. However, don’t expect to get rich off of this, usually it is just enough to cover cost of keeping the fish, if even that. For example, one of the easiest Cichlids to start with is the Convict Cichlid as I mentioned earlier, but since they are indeed so easy to raise they are quite common, thus you won’t make much money off of them and it may even be hard to find buyers in some areas.
Hybrid Cichlids and Selective Cichlid Breeding
Some Cichlids have been found to hybridize with closely related species quite readily, both in the wild and under selective Cichlid breeding. Perhaps the most ubiquitous aquarium hybrid is the Blood Parrot Cichlid, which is a cross of several American Cichlid species. With a beak-shaped mouth, an abnormal spine and an occasionally missing caudal fin, the fish has caused controversy among aquarium enthusiasts with some even calling the Blood Parrot the “Frankenstein” of Cichlid breeding.
Another notable hybrid, the Flower Horn Cichlid, was very popular in some parts of Asia from 2001 until late 2003 and is believed to bring good luck to its owner. The popularity of the Flower Horn Cichlid declined in 2004, resulting in many Flower Horn Cichlids being released into the rivers and canals of Malaysia and Singapore where they pose a threat to native animal communities.
Numerous Cichlid species have also been the subject of selective Cichlid breeding to develop new ornamental strains for the aquarium trade. The most intensive selective Cichlid breeding programs have involved freshwater Angelfish and Discus fish and many mutations that effect both coloration and finnage are known, one of my favorite examples is the Smokey Leopard Angelfish. Many other Cichlids have been selectively bred for albino mutations, resulting in fish like Albino Oscar fish, Albino Angelfish, Albino Kribensis, Albino Peacock Cichlid, Albino Brichardi and Pink Convict Cichlid.
However, these efforts at selective Cichlid breeding may have unintended consequences. For example, some selectively bred strains of German Blue Rams known as German Gold Rams have health and fertility problems. Similarly, the inbreeding involved in selective Cichlid breeding programs can cause severe physical abnormalities such as the notched phenotype in freshwater Angelfish. Which is why it is common in Cichlid breeding for breeders to trade fish to keep the gene pool fresh.