Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus sprengerae): Ultimate Care Guide

Common Name(s)Rusty Cichlid
Scientific NameIodotropheus sprengerae
OriginLake Malawi, East Africa
Temperature78-80°F (24-26°C)
Size3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm)
Minimum Tank Size55 gallons
Food & DietOmnivorous diet
Lifespan5 years
Water pH7.8-8.2
Tank MatesAulonocara, Protomelas, and Copadichromis species.
BreedingMaternal mouthbrooder
DiseasePotential tank mates include peaceful Aulonocara, Protomelas, and Copadichromis species.
Rusty Cichlid
Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus sprengerae)

Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus Sprengerae) is an African Cichlid species that is native to the Chinyamwezi regions of Lake Malawi in East Africa. As the name suggests, the female Rusty Cichlids have beautiful rust-colored bodies. The male Rusty Cichlid also has a rust-colored body, but it has more of a purple hue on the mid-section of the body.

As a mbuna, they do show some territorial behavior. However, compared to many other mbuna cichlids, Rusty cichlids are much less aggressive. While fish of the same species can display different social behavior, choosing tank mates for Rusty Cichlids is easier compared to other mbuna cichlids.

Considering their size of only 3-4 inches, they are also great for medium-sized aquariums.

Their less-aggressive nature and small size make them great ideal fish for fishkeepers that are new to keeping mbuna cichlids.

Rusty Cichlid was identified with the persistent efforts of Kappy Sprenger, an aquarist from Los Gatos, California. In honor of her work, the fish was named after her as Iodotropheus Sprengerae.

Rusty Cichlid Care

Much like any other fish you place in your tank, certain conditions must be met to ensure your Rusty Cichlid thrives. The best water to use for this fish will be hard water at about 200 parts per million with a PH of somewhere around 7.8-8.2. The ideal temperatures that will make your fish happy are between 78-80°F (24-26°C).

Although not overly territorial, these types of fish still can grow to decent sizes of 4 inches. This entails that the Rusty Cichlid will need a tank that accommodates it well. The best tank to use for this situation is a freshwater aquarium of at least 80 liters or more. Having an adequate aquarium will allow this fish to thrive and when healthy, can live for five years. 

Despite being a small fish, the Rusty Cichlid consumes various foods. An omnivore can eat meat, insects, and plant matter. Excellent choices include bloodworms, mosquito larvae, pellets, brine shrimp, and vegetable matter (cucumber, spinach, and lettuce). 

Rusty Cichlid Tank Setup

As with any other fish, creating an environment similar to its natural habitat is imperative. This means that knowledge of its original environment and the neighbors it lived with will make your tank a merrier one. Coming from Lake Malawi, it is important to match its environment to that.

The perfect tank for this fish will have vegetation. Plants such as Christmas Moss, Anubias, and or Java will suffice. Besides having the plants mentioned before, it would be wise to invest in the sand and some pebbles as it loves to dig to create its own habitats. Since it is the most peaceful cichlid, others can easily pick it on. Adding items such as clay pots, grottoes, snags, and hardy plants will make your fish happy and give some personality to your tank.

Rusty Cichlid Tank Mates

Since it is one of the least aggressive fish, it can easily be outcompeted by bigger, more dominant ones. The selection of fish you add with your Rusty Cichlid is just as important as having the right PH and temperature settings. Fish that complement it well and are actually native to Lake Malawi include the Peacock, Firemouth, and Electric Blue Ram variations.

Other species that can be paired with the Rusty Cichlid include the Aulonocara, Protomelas, or Copadichromis species. If you prefer, you can also add the Tanganyikan species as well. Despite having fish that are compatible with the Rusty Cichlid, you also have to keep in mind of sex ratio as well. Make sure your tank is only ⅓ male, with the rest being females.

Are Rusty Cichlids compatible with the Yellow Lab?

Yellow Lab cichlids (Labidochromis caeruleus) are an excellent fit as they are not very territorial and can live well around any type of cichlids. Just like the Rusty Cichlids, ensure they are not paired with overly aggressive fish.

Rusty Cichlid Breeding

It is difficult to tell apart male and female Rusty Cichlids from a distance until you are much closer. As mentioned before, females and juveniles are a rusty color, while the males are larger and more colorful, with more eggs in their anal fin. The reason for having eggs in their anal fin is to attract the females, who, despite being drawn to the colorful, shimmering movements of the male, are really drawn to the eggs they believe to have missed.

Being a mouthbrooding species, the females will hold on to eggs deposited by the male in their mouths which is called a fry. A typical broad will be between 15-20 eggs, with the young fish being released after about three weeks.

Raising a Rusty Cichlid fry is not hard, as it will stay in its mother’s mouth until it reaches adulthood. For the first week, the fry will live off their eggs sack until they can consume actual food like flakes and pellets. It is pertinent, however, to make sure that the female cichlid is separated from the males after every birth of the batch, as mating does take a toll.

Rusty Cichlid Disease

Rusty Cichlid is susceptible to various diseases that are common to Cichlids and other freshwater fish. While they can be hardy fish, it is important to understand the common diseases and illnesses that can threaten the health of these fish, especially in an aquarium setting.

Swim Bladder Disease

This disease affects the bladder of your cichlid and makes it hard for it to stay submerged. This usually causes physical injury to the fish or certain types of ailments like cancer or tuberculosis. Another cause of Swim Bladder Disease is diet related. Cichlids should be given a high-fiber diet like peas and spinach to relieve constipation, which can cause this disease.

Malawi Bloat

Common among African Cichlids, this ailment is essentially bloating of the stomach, which causes rapid breathing, loss of appetite, and feces discoloration. Left untreated, it can become fatal within three days. The cause of this is generally unknown, but it is purported to originate from a lack of tank quality. This can be done by making several changes to your aquarium, such as removing the carbon from your fish tank filter.


Not just a disease regulated to humans, TB can also be fatal to your Cichlids. Symptoms of this disease include loss of appetite, blotches on the skin, and frayed fins. Behavioral changes can also take place as fish will appear lifeless and lethargic. If you suspect one of your fish has been contaminated, swift action must occur. You must remove all fish to a separate hospital tank and treat the tank with melafix. Make sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect the tank before bringing the fish back.

Cotton Wool Disease

Cotton Wool Disease is a disease that causes fuzzy growth on the fish’s fins and body. This is due to a fungus that is naturally found in your aquarium. The fungus only becomes a problem when the tank water quality drops. Prior injury to the fish and stress can also be leading culprits to this disease. A remedy for this would be a salt bath or antifungal medication.


Hexamita, or Hole In The Head Syndrome, is another disease that is associated with cichlids. It is easily recognized as a depression in the head that leads to easily recognizable behaviors such as depression, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Hexamita is believed to be caused by a parasite, but this is heavily debated. Other theories include poor tank quality or mineral imbalance.

White Spot

Not to be confused with Cotton Wool Disease, white spot- ich is a disease that is caused by the parasite, “Ichthyophthirus Multifiliis”. Signs of this sickness will include labored breathing, clamped fins, lethargy, and rubbing against the tank. This disease is more like an infection and is highly contagious. Make sure to use salt baths, potassium pomergrante, increase the temperature, and acriflavine

Gill Flukes

Last but not least is a disease that can be deadly for your fish. This one is called Gill Flukes. Gill Flukes is actually a parasite that goes into the gills of your fish, making it hard to breathe. You can tell if your fish has this if it is at the water’s surface or if it is rubbing its gills on the tank window. A simple solution to this will be adding one tablespoon of aquarium salt each day and slightly increasing the tank temperature.

Where to find Rusty Cichlids for sale?

Rusty Cichlid is available from both online retailers and some local fish stores.

In most cases, it is easier to source them online. However, it can be difficult to identify the quality of the specimen when they are sold online. Therefore, be sure to purchase them from a reputable online retailer.

When purchasing fish from a local fish store, the health of the fish can be observed carefully before purchasing it. However, finding the fish can be challenging since not all stores will have them.

Rusty Cichlid cost approximately $8-20 USD. If you are purchasing the fish online, expect to pay an additional fee for the shipment of live fish.

Once the fish is purchased, be sure to take good care of it. Slowly acclimate the fish before adding it to the aquarium. Be sure to observe the fish carefully until it is well-established in its new environment.

Acclimating to an aquarium should be no issue since most Rusty Cichlids in the hobby are captive-bred. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Rusty Cichlids are considered a ‘Near Threatened species.

Rusty Cichlid Care and Breeding: A Mellow Mbuna Cichlid!

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