What to Know About African Cichlids

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on December 01, 2022

Cichlids are one of the largest and strangest groups of vertebrate fish — fish with backbones — on Earth. They’re popular as pets and farmed in aquaculture, and scientists have been studying them since the 1800s. African cichlids are some of the most fascinating and diverse members of this unique family. 

Just keep in mind that cichlids aren’t easy fish to care for. Make sure to do your research before bringing an African cichlid home.

All cichlids are members of the biological family Cichlidae. Scientists have a hard time estimating the number of genera and species in this family because new ones are constantly being discovered while others go extinct.

There are at least 140 different genera and upward of 2,000 species spread across a limited number of habitats. Across the globe, cichlids are found in a handful of countries, including: 

  • Africa
  • Cuba
  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Many South American countries

There’s even one cichlid species that’s native to the U.S., and 44 others have been introduced by human activities. 

Each cichlid species is typically found in one small area of the world — usually a single lake or a slow-flowing part of one river. Each genus is, for the most part, restricted to a single continent. 

This high amount of species diversity in a small area is an example of endemism, a unique biological phenomenon. Cichlids also have a shockingly fast rate of speciation — the formation of new, distinct species. These are just two of the reasons why scientists are fascinated by cichlids.  

Within this family, African cichlids represent the most diverse branch of the tree. They’re all found in the Crenicichla genus. They’re mostly found in three freshwater lakes: 

  • Lake Malawi
  • Lake Victoria
  • Lake Tanganyika 

There are between 800 and 2,100 species of African cichlids in these lakes alone. Over 30 African lakes contain cichlids. There are also about 150 species found in African rivers. All of these areas are freshwater habitats. 

The species found in Lake Malawi and Lake Victoria are entirely monophyletic. This means that they all come from the exact same branch on the cichlid tree of life. The species found in Lake Tanganyika are more diverse — you can find species from more than one branch of the cichlid tree.

Some species are popular in aquariums, and others — like blue tilapia — are farmed in aquaculture. As a whole, African cichlids have the broadest range of physical and behavioral traits in the cichlid family.

All cichlids have the same general body plan. This includes the same: 

  • Fin positions
  • Scale composition
  • Jaw arrangement

Outside of these basic similarities, African cichlid species are as different as can be in terms of:

  • Size 
  • Color
  • Body-shape
  • Dental structures — both for the teeth found in their mouth and for those found in their throat, or pharyngeal jaw
  • Mating habits
  • Diet
  • Living environment  

This incredible diversity allows cichlids to conquer every environment that’s available in an isolated freshwater lake. For example, in Lake Tanganyika, there’s a species that can temporarily survive in layers of the lake that don’t have oxygen.  

The average African cichlid size ranges from 1 inch long to over 3 feet. But most species are near the smaller end of this range. 

A species' body shape depends on its environment. Most of those found in the African lakes are oval-shaped with slight compression on the sides. Some are highly compressed, and others have tubular forms. 

There’s a near-unlimited range of options in terms of African cichlid colors. There's a species of African cichlid for every color of fish that exists on Earth. Some have elaborate fins, while others are sleek and dull. 

In some species, males are larger and more brightly colored than females. But there are plenty of species where the females are showier than the males. 

Researchers don’t know the average African cichlid lifespan in the wild. But in captivity, many species live for 10 years. There are lifespan differences between species — for example, some regularly live for 18 years.  

If you’re interested in keeping African cichlids in an aquarium, you should take some time to research the many different species available. Find one with all of the physical attributes that are right for your preferences and tank setup.

African cichlids as a whole can eat pretty much any type of food in their environment. This includes: 

Each species has its own particular diet that they stick to within its ecosystem. Some are exclusively insectivores and only eat insects, while others can generalize and eat any food source that’s available. A species' teeth tend to reflect its distinct eating habits — allowing cichlids to filter the water or pry creatures out of crevices as needed. 

You have to learn the specific dietary needs of your African cichlid species before you bring them home. You can buy a wide variety of commercial flakes and pellets that are formulated for cichlids. Expect to feed the fish in your tank once or twice a day.

Not all species of cichlids make good pets. Luckily, you can find a lot of the African varieties at pet stores. 

Cichlids are popular in aquariums because they have mild temperaments and are easy to breed. But many species are too territorial to keep in an aquarium setting. 

Territory requirements could still be important for common aquarium species. You can manage this problem with plenty of tank space. The exact tank size that you need depends on the species. In general, larger species need more space. All of them are better off with lots of room.

Temperature and pH requirements can differ greatly between species. For example, some species become overly aggressive and territorial when your tank’s temperature is too high. 

You should also find appropriate gravel or substrate for the bottom of your tank and provide places for the fish to hide — like broken terracotta pots or rocks. Filtration and aeration are necessities that you need to consider on a case-by-case basis. 

It's difficult to give general care advice for fish as diverse as African cichlids. Get as much species-specific care information as you can from the place where you purchase your new aquatic pet. With enough dedication and specialized attention, you’ll have a thriving tank in no time.

Show Sources

Aggressive Behavior: “Effects of temperature and prior residence on territorial aggression in the convict cichlid Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum.” 
Animal Diversity Web: “Cichlidae: Cichlids.”
Georgia Aquarium: “Cichlids.”  
PLOS One: “The African Cichlid Fish Astatotilapia burtoni Uses Acoustic Communication for Reproduction: Sound Production, Hearing, and Behavioral Significance,” “The Function of Anal Fin Egg-Spots in the Cichlid Fish Astatotilapia burtoni.” 
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: “African cichlid fish: a model system in adaptive radiation research.” 
The Science of Nature: “The species flocks of East African cichlid fishes: Recent advances in molecular phylogenetics and population genetics.”

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