Cichlid Fish: Ultimate Guide to Types of Cichlids


Cichlids are very popular in the aquarium hobby, and most fish keepers have some knowledge of these fish. However, not many people know that there are over 1500 species of Cichlids, with more being discovered every year. In fact, the exact number of Cichlid species in existence remain unknown. Many experts and scientists estimate that number to be upwards of 3000, meaning nearly half of the Cichlids worldwide may be still undiscovered. Most varieties of Cichlids are endemic to Africa and South America. However, some variants of Cichlids can be found in Europe and Asia as well.

While most people consider Cichlids an aquarium fish, this isn’t always the case. In some parts of the world, Cichlids consumed as food. In fact, there is a good chance that you may have consumed Cichlids as well. Tilapia is one of the most commonly eaten fish worldwide and is actually part of the Cichlid family.

While there aren’t too many people keeping Tilapia in their aquariums as ornamental fish, there is a wide variety of Cichlid species that are being kept as pets. Since they are so diverse, there is a Cichlid for all types of aquarists. Both new and experienced aquarists can enjoy keeping them. Many species of Cichlids are known to be hardy and long living, with an average lifespan of 8 years. These characteristics makes them great pets.

However, not all Cichlids are suitable for beginners in the fish keeping hobby. Some species of Cichlids are challenging to take care of. Different species may have very different care requirements, including dietary needs. Some require a high protein diet, while others prefer a more herbivorous diet. Since their needs can vary, it is important to properly research their specific dietary needs in advance.

Tank setup is one of the most important aspects of owning any species of fish – and Cichlids are no different. Because each Cichlid comes from different unique environments and ecosystems, you must thoroughly research each species before setting up a tank for them. It would be best if you emulated their native waters in order to give them the best chance at a happy and healthy life. Water temperature and pH are two of the most vital parameters that you must take into account. Any slight fluctuations in pH will quickly and negatively affect the species in your tank. Tank mates are also another crucial factor to take into account. You need to make sure all the fish in your tank are compatible with one another.

If you’re planning to add a Cichlid, any type of Cichlid, to your tank, then you’ve come to the right place.

Yellow Lab Cichlid
Yellow Lab Cichlid (Labidochromis Caeruleus)

What are Cichlid Fish?

It is not an easy task to describe Cichlids because there are over 1500 different species of Cichlids. Cichlids are mainly freshwater fish, usually found in Africa, North America, and South America. But even that isn’t always true. There are species of Cichlids found in Asia, Madagascar, and Europe. Cichlids also tend to vary wildly in size. Some Cichlids only grow to be 2 inches long, while others can reach nearly 3 feet in length. However, there are a few features that all Cichlids have in common. Every variety of Cichlid tends to have the same jaw structure. Each Cichlid also has one nostril on each side of its head; this is interesting because most fish species tend to have two nostrils on each side of their head. Teeth are also a common factor with most Cichlids, although each member of the Cichlid family uses those teeth for different things.

These unique fish can also be found in a wide variety of colors. Interestingly, Cichlids can be carnivores or herbivores, and some are even herbivores. New species of Cichlids are discovered each year which is difficult for scientists. The rate at which new Cichlids are found means scientists have difficulty coming up with conservation plans to keep them safe. While not endangered, Cichlids are threatened by people overfishing them and those who catch them for the aquarium trade. Whether you eat Cichlids, which many people do, or want to add one to your tank, these fish are unique and prove that nature is unpredictable and unforgettable.

Cichlid Types by Origin

Many cichlids can be identified by where they originated. Cichlids can be found throughout the world in various bodies of water. However, they population of Cichlids tend to be concentrated in particular bodies of water throughout the world. There are several locations where Cichlids are abundant. Each site is vastly different from one another, which creates a whole different type of Cichlid. These Cichlids have adapted to their environments through evolution. In the following sections, we will be going over some of these locations worldwide. We will attempt to illustrate the differences between Cichlids found in Lake Victoria in Africa and those found in the waters of South America and many other locations across the globe. With how frequently new species of Cichlids are discovered, you never quite know where you’re going to find one. It is a true wonder that these fish could have vastly different origins but still be a part of the same family.

Keep in mind that some hybrid specimen such as Flowerhorns may not be included in this list below since they do not exist in the wild.

African Cichlids

Kribensis Cichlid (Pelvicachromis Pulcher)
Kribensis Cichlid (Pelvicachromis Pulcher)

Africa is where most species of Cichlids originate from. Within Africa, Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Taiwan Reef and Madagascar are known for housing many Cichlids. Since many of these African Cichlids, especially species originating from the same lake, have similar care requirements. In general, African Cichlids prefer hard water with high water pH.

Here’s a list of African Cichlids that are commonly kept in aquariums:

African Great Lakes
African Great Lakes

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi is so enormous that it crosses into three different countries, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Lake Malawi is an African Great Lake, and it is also known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Lago Niassa in Mozambique. By volume, Lake Malawi is the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world, and the ninth-largest by area. Lake Malawi is the second deepest Lake in Africa and the third-largest. But, Lake Malawi is unique. Lake Malawi is the home to more fish species than any other lake globally. More specifically, Lake Malawi is the home to over 700 different species of Cichlids. That number could be much larger because of the sheer amount of potentially undiscovered species.

saulosi cichlid
Saulosi Cichlid (Pseudotropheus saulosi)

The water of Lake Malawi isn’t too out of the ordinary. The water tends to be slightly alkaline, with pH levels between 7.7 and 8.6. The temperature of Lake Malawi is usually very steady. It varies between 75 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the deeper water sections can get a bit colder, around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The water of Lake Malawi is very clear unless it’s during the rainy season. The rainy season lasts from January to March; during those months, the water tends to be muddier.

Keeping Malawi Cichlids isn’t too tricky at all. It would help if you were sure to emulate their native habitat or Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi is tropical, so ensure you have a heater that can maintain the temperature between 72 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. pH level is essential in any tank; in a Malawi Cichlid tank, you need to ensure that the pH level is between 7.7 and 8.6. Most Malawi Cichlids are aggressive and territorial, so you won’t want to keep them in a community tank. Thirty gallons is usually the perfect size for most Malawi Cichlids.

Some examples of Malawi Cichlids are Electric Yellow Cichlids, Hongi Cichlids, Pearl of Likomas, Eastern River Bream, Redbreast Tilapia, and hundreds of others. While they have vastly different names, each of these species of Cichlids is very similar to one another. They all have the same water requirements and have very similar bodies. The biggest difference between them is the color of their bodies.

Mbuna Cichlids

Livingstoni Cichlid
Livingstoni Cichlid (Nimbochromis livingstonii)

Mbuna Cichlids are traditionally Cichlids that are found among the rocks along the shore of Lake Malawi. Mbuna actually means rockfish in the native language of the Tonga people in Malawi. Mbuna Cichlids are known for their bright, vivid colors and their hardy nature. Yellow and orange are the most common colors of Mbuna Cichlids. However, that is not always the case. Mbuna Cichlids can also be found in bright blue colors, which is very rare for freshwater fish.

Tropheops Chilumba are a common species of Mbuna Cichlids. What makes Tropheops Chilumba unique is that the young and female ones are yellow, while the male ones are bright blue.

Mbuna Cichlids don’t tend to get bigger than 4 inches in the wild, which means they can be kept in a small to medium-sized tank. They can get very aggressive and territorial, so be careful when putting them in the same tank. Ensure that you have plenty of rocks in your tank setup for your Mbuna Cichlid to hide in and around. Mbuna Cichlids don’t have any outrageous tank requirements. Their tank requirements are actually very similar to those of the Malawi Cichlids. Mbuna Cichlids require a water temperature of 77 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH requirement of a Mbuna Cichlid tank is between 7.5 – 8.4.

Mbuna Cichlids are easy to care for and affordable, making them the perfect choice for aquarists of any skill level. Their gorgeous and unique coloring instantly makes the focal point of any tank they are added to.

Lake Victoria Cichlids

Flameback Cichlid (Pundamilia nyererei)
Flameback Cichlid (Pundamilia nyererei)

Lake Victoria, named after Queen Victoria in 1858, is the largest Lake in Africa by area and the world’s largest tropical Lake. Overall, Lake Victoria is the second-largest freshwater Lake by surface area globally, second only to Lake Superior in North America. At one point in history, Lake Victoria was the home to over 500 different species of Cichlids. Unfortunately, the number of Cichlids in Lake Victoria has drastically dwindled over the past 50 years. This decrease can be attributed to the introduction of the Nile Perch. The Nile has preyed on many of the Cichlid species in Lake Victoria, hunting them to extinction.

Lake Victoria is vast, and as such, there are different conditions in the water. Some Lake Victoria Cichlids are used to rocky cliff areas, while others prefer a sandy substrate. Because of the different environments in Lake Victoria, not all Cichlids from the area will have the same requirements. Some Lake Victora Cichlids may like to feed on algae, while others are hunters and carnivores. Despite the differences in environments, some tank conditions can be used regardless of what type of Lake Victoria Cichlid you have. A tank that houses Lake Victora Cichlids should have its temperature remain between 74 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. That small temperature range means that you will need a powerful heater to maintain it. Lake Victoria’s water is alkaline, meaning that a tank for Lake Victoria Cichlids needs to have a pH level between 7.2 to 8.6.

Some examples of Lake Victoria Cichlids are Black Piebalds, Fire Red Ugandas, Flameback Cichlid, Hippo Point Salmons, and many others.

Tanganyika Cichlids

Frontosa Cichlid
Frontosa Cichlid (Cyphotilapia Frontosa)

Lake Tanganyika is the longest freshwater lake in the world, so long that it stretches between 4 countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zambia. There are over 250 different species of Cichlids endemic to Lake Tanganyika.

The cichlids that call Lake Tanganyika are wildly different from one another. The largest Cichlid in the world, the Giant Cichlid, is endemic to Lake Tanganyika. The Giant Cichlid can grow to upwards of 3 feet in length. Lake Tanganyika is also home to Multies, which grow to a max size of 1.2 inches; Multies are believed to be the smallest Cichlid in the world. That is just proof that even in the same environment, species can grow vastly different than one another.

Madagascan Cichlids

Starry Night Cichlid
Starry Night Cichlid (Paratilapia polleni)

Madagascar is an island off the African coast known for its varied wildlife, such as chameleons, lemurs, and many species of Cichlids. Similar to Lake Victoria Cichlids, Madagascan Cichlids are also hunted by predators that are native to their environment. One of the most gorgeous Cichlids in the world, is a Madagascan Cichlid known as the Starry Night Cichlid. The Starry Night Cichlid is known as Marakely in Madagascar, which means black fish. The Starry Night Cichlid is a dark black fish with silver speckles all over its body. This speckled pattern resembles a starry night, hence their name. The Starry Night Cichlid is unfortunately endangered in its natural environment due to habitat destruction. On average, Starry Night Cichlids can grow very large, upwards of 12 inches or one foot. The native environment of the Starry Night Cichlid is warm, usually averaging a temperature between 76 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH level of their native habitat is in the range of 8.0 to 8.5.

There are many other species of Madagascan Cichlids other than Starry Night Cichlids, such as Paretroplus dambabe, Damba, Ptychocromis grandidieri, and many others.

Other African Cichlids

Outside of the major lakes in Africa, there are still many species of Cichlids. Some, such as Lionhead Cichlid or Buffalo Head Cichlid, are native to West Africa and the Congo River Basin. The Lionhead Cichlid doesn’t grow very large, only around 4 inches. They tend to be a peaceful species, but they can be territorial. They prefer slightly colder waters than other African Cichlids, usually between 75 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Buffalo Cichlids also like a pH level between 6.5 to 7.5.

One of the more uncommon species of African Cichlids is the Turkana Jewel Cichlid. Turkana Jewel Cichlids are native to Lake Turkana in Kenya. Its tank requirements are more similar to American Cichlids than its African counterparts.

Turkana Jewel Cichlids are also one of the most people species of Cichlids, only getting aggressive during breeding time. West African Mouthbrooders are another species of African Cichlids, and despite their name, they can be found in both East and South Africa. As their name suggests, West African Mouthbrooders reproduce using Mouthbrooding. They grow to a max size of about 4 inches. These smaller fish are sem-aggressive and prefer their water temperature to be between 65 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.

American Cichlids

American Cichlids and African Cichlids are very different, despite being in the same family of fish. The most obvious difference between American Cichlids and African Cichlids is their place of origin. As their name implies, American Cichlids are native to freshwater of South and Central America. In general, American Cichlids are friendlier and more compatible with other fish than African Cichlids. You would have a better change of adding an American Cichlid to a community tank than African Cichlids. On the other hand, African Cichlids are much more resistant to disease and illness than American Cichlids. The main feature that American and African Cichlids share are their gorgeous and eye-catching colors.

South American Cichlids

Oscar Fish, Astronotus ocellatus
Oscar Fish (Astronotus ocellatus)

South American Cichlids can be found in various rivers and lakes throughout South America. Out of the many rivers and lakes that exist in South America, the majority of the South American Cichlid species originate from the Amazon River. The Amazon River stretches approximately 4000 miles across South America, and it carries a significant amount of water. In fact, according to Britannica, the Amazon River constitutes one-fifth of the total flowing fresh water of the world and empties about 179,800 cubic metres of water into the Altantic Ocean every second. It is no surprise that there are many fish, including Cichlids, that originate in these waters.

Amazon River of South America
Amazon River of South America

Here’s a list of South American Cichlids that are commonly kept in aquariums:

Central American Cichlids

Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys meeki)
Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys meeki)

Central American Cichlids consists of many different species that originate from a variety of environments. These fish originate from streams, rivers, lakes, and various other bodies of water within Central America. In general, they are intelligent and adaptable fish, making them quite popular for home aquariums.

Central America
Central America

Here’s a list of Central American Cichlids that are commonly kept in aquariums:

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