A few months ago I had the privilege of helping a friend to set up his very first freshwater aquarium. I walked him through the process of filling the tank, installing the equipment, and getting the tank ready for cycling. During the two weeks of downtime while the tank was cycling, he and I had several conversations about the type of fish he’d like to keep in his new tank. One group of species that kept coming up was cichlids. I have never kept cichlids myself, but they have always been of interest to me—my favorite species is the colorful discus fish which grows up to 10 inches long, or more.
Given the fact that my friend’s aquarium was only 29-gallons in capacity, I could not recommend discus fish because they would quickly out-grow a tank that size. I did, however, help my friend sort through some other species of cichlids which were a good match for his tank. In researching different species of cichlid I was reminded of just how unique and amazing this group of fishes is. There are more than 1,700 species of cichlids that have already been discovered and an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 more that have yet to be described. Among the species belonging to the cichlid family are a number of very popular species including the discus fish, freshwater angelfish, and Oscars.
So, what is it about cichlids that I find so fascinating? For one thing, cichlids have a unique anatomical feature known as pharyngeal teeth—yes, these fish actually have teeth inside their throat. Another fascinating characteristic of these fish is their parental care habits. Some species of cichlid gather their fertilized eggs into their mouths and keep them there until they hatch—this is referred to as mouth-brooding. Other species dig out nests in which to deposit their eggs or they lay them in caves or crevices. Regardless of their methods, most cichlids make wonderful parents, willing to fight to the death to defend their fry.
Another thing that makes cichlids so interesting to me is the fact that they are some of the most colorful freshwater fish on the planet. In certain species of cichlid you will find brilliant colors that you would typically expect to see in tropical saltwater fish—deep blues, vibrant purples, and gorgeous greens. Cichlids also display a variety of patterns including stripes, spots, splotches, and more. Each species of cichlid is completely unique in terms of appearance and they are also highly specialized in terms of diet. Some species of cichlid are uniquely adapted to living in the murky, muddy waters of African Rift lakes while others troll the fast-flowing waters of the Amazon River.
Although cichlids are incredibly fascinating fish, they are not always easy to keep in the home aquarium. For one thing, many species of cichlid grow to be six inches long, or more, which means that they need a fairly large aquarium—especially if you plan to keep more than one of them. Some species of cichlid are also highly aggressive, like the Texas Cichlid or the Red Devil. Many species of Lake Malawi Cichlid are aggressive as well and must be kept in tanks with only one male of each species to reduce territorial aggression. In some cases, cichlids become aggressive against different species of cichlid just because they have similar coloration.
Another quality that makes cichlids tricky to keep in the home aquarium is their tendency to make a mess of your tank. Cichlids love to dig in substrate and they have a penchant for rearranging tank decorations so you’ll need to decorate your cichlid tank with large, solid decorations that are not easily moved. You also need to be sure that you provide the right type of diet for the kind of cichlids you are keeping. Some cichlids are primarily algae eaters while others are more carnivorous, requiring a diet of various insects and crustaceans. Certain species of cichlid are also likely to eat other fish if you keep them in a tank with smaller species.
Keeping cichlids in the home aquarium may be challenging, but it is definitely very rewarding as well. Cichlids are very intelligent and they have the capacity to learn to recognize their owners. Oscars, for example, have been known to exhibit dog-like qualities such as begging for food at the top of the tank—they may even tolerate some degree of handling. If you plan to keep cichlids in your own tank at home, be sure to do your research first. Make sure that your tank is large enough to accommodate the species you’ve chosen and, if you plan to keep more than one species in the tank, make sure that they are fully compatible. As long as you are able to meet the needs of your cichlids you will find that they are a joy to keep in the home aquarium.