Mayan Cichlid (Mayaheros urophthalmus): Ultimate Care Guide

The Mayan Cichlid (Mayaheros uropthalmus) is a Cichlid from Central America, and they are characterized by their reddish-brown color and 5-7 vertical green stripes that goes across their body. These stripes can be solid or broken and are Mayan Cichlid’s most distinctive feature. The Mayan Cichlid also has an eye-shaped dark spot at the base of its caudal fin.  Many members of this species have striking reddish pigmentation near the base of their fins and around their mouths and nostrils.  Mayan Cichlids are athletic fish with strength and endurance that allow them to navigate the open Caribbean.

Mayan Cichlids are native to Mexico, where they inhabit lakes, rivers, and swamps with muddy substrates.  They tolerate high salinity, considering that fact that they are a freshwater fish. They can be found in salty estuaries, lagoons, and rocky coastlines. 

They were first spotted in Florida in the early 1980s, and the Mayan Cichlid has adapted perfectly to the slightly cooler waters in this area. The appearance, athleticism, and hardiness of the Mayan Cichlid make it very adaptable to a wide range of water parameters and it thrives both in the wild and in captivity.    

Mayan Cichlids are carnivorous fish that possess both caniform teeth and pharyngeals. Observation of their feeding habits suggest that they rely on their canines to catch their prey. However, the pharyngeals do most of the work, particularly when grinding down hard-shelled foods such as snails. 

Mayan Cichlids are not dangerous to humans, but they will try to eat fish that are small enough to fit in their mouths.

Mayan Cichlid (Mayaheros urophthalmus)
Mayan Cichlid (Mayaheros urophthalmus)

Mayan Cichlid Care

Although Mayan Cichlids are carnivorous, they nevertheless retain popularity among aquarists.  They are beautiful, playful, and fascinating to watch.  Mayan Cichlids are social, if temperamental, and can provide years of fascination with the right preparation, upkeep, and tankmates.  Mayan Cichlids, if maintained with care, reach a size of 10 – 12” and live between 4 – 8 years.  To maximize their health, it is recommended to keep their artificial habitat as close to their natural habitat as possible; however, many aquarists have remarked with surprise on how well these Cichlids adapt to water outside the parameters of their native Mexican streams and lakes.

Water Parameters

Mayan Cichlids are very hardy and can thrive in waters that present a wide range of temperature, hardness, and salinity.  Their natural habitat ranges from clean streams to brackish swamps, to the open sea, and their adaptability is one of the most attractive features for a hobbyist.  As with any species, the best possible aquarium will mimic the environment of their natural habitat.  Doing so will maximize the health and wellbeing of the fish and potentially reduce conflict in the tank that might result from discomfort or illness from the water parameters.  That said, hobbyists have long prized the Mayan Cichlid for its tolerance of many different temperatures, pH levels, and salinities.

Mayan Cichlids can adapt to water temperatures between 68 – 92°F (20 – 33°C) with no problems, though they prefer the warmer end of this range.  They will be at their best among other tropical fish but can be kept at lower temperatures as well.  Mayan Cichlids prefer a water pH between 6.0 – 8.0 and hardness up to 20°H.  They may contribute to the water’s particulate content themselves, as they frequently dig in soft substrates looking for food.  Mayan Cichlids are euryhaline; that is, they tolerate water salinity up to 40 ppt, which is several higher than the ocean at approximately 35 ppt.  They also can adapt to water with lower oxygen levels.  Mayan Cichlids tailor their activity level to the amount of oxygen present, so they will survive even in hypoxic water.

Tank Setup

Mayan Cichlids require a minimum tank size of 55 gallons (208 liters).  Since they are temperamental (more on this below), some hobbyists prefer to keep them in aquariums with up to 150 gallons capacity.  Depending on how many tankmates your Mayan Cichlid will have, and on what species, you may want to err on the side of a more spacious tank.  Regardless of what you decide, 55 gallons is the minimum that will allow this Cichlid to behave in its normal athletic and playful manner.

Mayan Cichlids should live in a tank with many plants, rocks, and other structures that provide cover.  Their natural habitat varies quite a bit, but they gravitate towards lakes, rivers, and swamps that have muddy substrates and plentiful flora.  Mayan Cichlids can be territorial, especially if their habitat is smaller than they prefer, so giving them plenty of places to hide may help mitigate their periodic aggression.  Since they often dig in the substrate to forage, consider plants with robust root structures.  Floating plants also make a nice addition, as they have no roots to be disturbed.  Mayan Cichlids can thrive in brackish, muddy water, but that may not be ideal for their tankmates.  Since they can dig up and disturb the substrate, it may be good to invest in an excellent filter for the sake of maintaining clear water for your other species.  When planning a tank for your Mayan Cichlid remember these guidelines: spacious and well-decorated!

Food and Diet

Mayan Cichlids are carnivores that will consume plants if necessary.  While it is safe to feed them plant-based pellet or wafer foods, if they do not take in sufficient animal protein they will suffer from malnourishment and become much more aggressive.  Mayan Cichlids should be fed fish, shrimp, snails, and other shelled invertebrates.  Hobbyists often feed them frozen food with great success; however, the Mayan Cichlid is an athletic predator, and live feed fits their biology and temperament best.  Allowing them to hunt their food may also blunt their aggression towards their tankmates.  You should feed your Mayan Cichlid 2 – 3 times daily, although they can eat a single larger meal in a day and refrain from eating the following day.  Both in the wild and captivity, in the absence of animal-based food, they will dig in the substrate looking for suitable plant-based foods and detritus.      


Mayan Cichlids are monogamous breeding pairs that become very aggressive and territorial during the breeding process.  Both members of the breeding pair will guard the eggs and fry once they have hatched.  The eggs are in an adhesive mucous and will stick to any structures they touch.  There is also evidence that many of the eggs are kept safe in the mother’s mouth, but it is more common for them to nest.  Mayan Cichlids build nests in the wild of 5 – 10” (12 – 38 cm), which will require that they have ample space in an aquarium.

Mayan Cichlids will protect their fry for up to 6 weeks, with both parents becoming very aggressive towards tankmates.  Some hobbyists will separate them into a separate breeding tank; however, when a breeding pair of Mayan Cichlids is segregated from all their neighbors, they may become aggressive towards each other and the fry.  Therefore, it is best to keep them in their usual tank during breeding, but it must be large enough to accommodate all the fish comfortably.  If Mayan Cichlids breed in a large enough environment, they will be able to mark their territory and defend it while the tankmates will be able to give them a wide enough berth to prevent conflict. 

Mayan Cichlids usually produce several batches of 100 – 150 fry from March to June, but will sometimes extend the breeding season further, into the fall.  The fry prefer gently flowing water, and will often sink to the substrate.  Mayan Cichlid fry eat brine shrimp or infusoria, though some people recommend hard-boiled egg-white, too.  After about 4 – 5 weeks, the fry should be removed from the tank and put in a separate one until they are 2” (5 cm).  Then they can be reintroduced to the community tank, provided there is nothing present that is large enough to eat them.     

Breeding Mayan Cichlids can be difficult; however, with proper planning, care, and attention it can be quite rewarding.  It is fascinating to watch the parents defend the young, and juvenile Mayan Cichlids are energetic, playful, and curious additions to any aquarium. 


Mayan Cichlids are not prone to any unique diseases; however, they are susceptible to the same parasites, fungi, and bacteria that commonly afflict other freshwater tropical species.  As always, maintaining a clean, well-filtered aquarium and close observation will prevent any of the most common breakouts.  In the event of illness, Mayan Cichlids are quite resilient and should respond well to standard treatment.

Tank Mates

Mayan Cichlids can be aggressive, especially during the breeding season or when other fish encroach on their territory.  As mentioned above, the key to keeping Mayan Cichlids in a community tank is space – the more the better!  Whatever tankmates you choose, make sure they are large enough not to be looked at as prey and incurious or resilient enough to withstand the Mayan Cichlid’s territorial aggression.  Many hobbyists will insist on a tank between 100 – 150 gallons (380 – 568 liters) to make sure everyone can carve out their own living space.

Mayan Cichlids make excellent tankmates for some other members of the Cichlid family, particularly the Midas Cichlid, Red Devil Cichlid, and Red Head Cichlid.  Since these other species have similar feeding and breeding habits to the Mayan Cichlid, but are not incredibly close relatives, they will not perceive each other as threats and will exhibit compatible behavior patterns. 

Mayan Cichlids make compatible tankmates for several other tropical species, particularly armored catfish of the Loricariidae family.  Most of these catfish are large enough to be safe from a Cichlid’s aggression but are herbivorous and will not compete with the Mayan Cichlid for food or territory. 

Mayan Cichlids are not compatible tankmates anything small enough to be considered prey or anything that will encroach on its territory.  They should not be kept with Wolf, Jaguar, or Montagua Cichlids, as they are all very closely related and will become territorial and antagonistic towards each other. 

Where to Find Mayan Cichlids for Sale

Mayan Cichlids are not as easy to find in regular pet stores as many other Cichlids, so it may be best to look for them in shops that specialize in tropical fish.  Mayan Cichlids usually cost from $15 for juveniles to $25 for adults, making them affordable additions for the aquarist.  

Mayan Cichlid as an Invasive Species

Mayan Cichlids are an invasive species in Florida, and they were first recorded there in the early 1980s.  Although they are technically not native to Florida, Mayan Cichlids have adapted very well to Florida’s waterways and coasts, and they have not had a deleterious effect on the local ecosystem.  Now, they are well established along both the east and west coasts of southern Florida and have become popular as game fish. 

Mayan Cichlids as an Game Fish

Mayan Cichlids put up quite a fight due to their natural athleticism, and sporting anglers find them to be a pleasant challenge for a fish their size.  No regulations govern the catch and release of Mayan Cichlids, so they may be taken freely from Florida’s waterways and coasts.  Indeed, Mayan Cichlids have become something of a tourist attraction in southern Florida specifically because they give good sport.  Mayan Cichlids can be baited with live bait such as small fish, shrimp, snails, and insects or any artificial lures that mimic the behavior of their prey.  They have been known to go after flies of various types, as well as an assortment of jigs, plugs, and stick baits.

Mayan Cichlids are edible, and they are farmed in Mexico specifically for consumption while many sport anglers in Florida have posted their recipes online.  Their flesh is flaky, white, and moist, and it has a pleasant, mild flavor.  In Florida, where the Mayan Cichlid is non-native, some people look at catching and eating them as a service to the local ecosystem.  Many people will keep and cook any Mayan Cichlids they feel are large enough, and YouTube has several tutorials available for preferred ways of cleaning and cooking them. 


Mayan Cichlids are an aggressive but energetic, beautiful, and fascinating addition to any home aquarium large enough to give them the space they need.  While they may not be for beginners (especially if they are being kept for breeding), proper planning, attention, and care make them treasured members of communal tanks of tropical fish.  Their hardiness and athleticism ensure that Mayan Cichlids can reside and thrive in aquariums populated with larger, more aggressive species and give years of entertainment and fascination to the diligent aquarist.

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