African Cichlids

African Cichlids


In the world of freshwater fish, African Cichlids are some of the most exotic freshwater fish available to aquarium hobbyists. They are a very large family of fish with huge varieties of body sizes, shapes and personalities.

African Cichlids kept by aquarists have a number of unique characteristics and are very rewarding to keep. Popular varieties include Peacock Cichlids, which are vibrantly colored, Oscars, which have fascinating personalities, and Discus, which have some of the most unique markings and colorings available in any fish species.

These cichlids, as mentioned, exhibit some remarkable behavior. It is both highly complex and ritualistic. Cichlids can readily greet their handlers, particularly when food is on the way and they will seem to beg for food. This makes them a favorite amongst many hobbyists.

Most of the most favorite Cichlid species are moderate in size and well suited to an aquarium environment. Be cautious however that many of these will reach an impressive size so it is essential to do your research before purchasing, to see what size you can expect the specimen to grow to, and that you can provide adequate housing when they reach this size.

Cichlids are found around the globe, across the Americas, Africa and parts of Asia.  African Cichlids have evolved to contain hundreds of endemic species alone. These 1300 species have been scientifically identified and described and it is estimated that there are many more with conservative estimates number above 2000. There are many different shapes and sizes in the family with disk-like forms predominantly on show amongst south-American cichlids (Discus and Angelfish), and cylindrical bodied forms originating from Africa.

They are categorized as being “Secondary Freshwater Fish” which means that their ancestors were marine fish. Scientists believe that arrived to freshwater from marine bodies of water as they have features relating to a number of marine species such as damsels, wrasses and parrotfish. This also explains why so many cichlids do well in salty water with some species extending parts of their habitats to the ocean.

The majority of cichlids of Africa come from lakes that fashioned when two huge valets filled with water millions of years ago. These are referred to as the African Rift Lakes. The fish from these Rift Lakes have become the most popular freshwater fish since the early 1980’s when species became more accessible.

The two great Rift Lakes in East Africa are known as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. A lesser-known great lake of Africa is Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria is also very large however it is not known as a rift lake; it is a shallower saucer-shaped lake that is situated between the two larger Rift lakes. The Cichlids of these great lakes are known for their diversity and beauty. They are unique to their respective lakes with most being found nowhere else.

African Cichlid Habitats

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is situated on a long tear in the earth’s crust made by tectonic plates moving. The streams that flow into the lake have a high mineral content. This combined with the alkaline water make Lake Malawi renowned for its clarity of water. It is essential therefore, that aquarium water parameters are monitored closely as they will react badly to poor water quality.

There are roughly 300 species described by ichthyologists however it is also estimated that there are over 800 species of cichlids endemic to this lake. The environments inhabited by these cichlids include rocky areas, sandy areas and midwater areas.


Lake Tanganyika


Also known as an “island sea” due to its huge size and numerous inhabitants, Lake Tanganyika is the second deepest lake in the entire world with depths reaching a whopping 4823 Feet. This contributes to it’s stable and oxygen rich water which is something to keep in mind when housing fish from Lake Tanganyika. There are nearly 250 species of cichlid and over 150 of other species living in this lake.

Lake Victoria

Lake victoria is the smallest and youngest out of the three lakes and as mentioned previously is not a Rift Lake. It is also the shallowest of all three lakes. An introduction and expansion of a ravenous predator known as the Nile Perch combined with Human activities has led to vast changes amongst this ecosystem culminating in widespread reduction and extinction amongst a large number of cichlid species.


Other Areas

Cichlids that aren’t found in the lakes described above are found in numerous rivers and streams in west Africa and outlying islands such as Madagascar.


Types of Cichlids


The mbuna group are rock dwellers and endemic to Lake Malawi. There are 12 genera in this group and they are characterized as very active and aggressive. The African word ‘mbuna’ means ‘rockfish’. This group contains the attractive looking Zebra Cichlids. An aquarium will need to contain many rocky hiding places or strategically placed fish tank ornaments to emulate your mbuna’s natural habitat. 


The haplochromis group are free roaming cichlids from Lake Malawi. Whether this group is a genus or not is being debated amongst experts but the group itself numbers the largest in the Cichlidae family, with over 200 described species. The majority of species within this group are endemic to Lake Malawi, they generally live in more sandy areas and open waters and are often larger than mbuna cichlids. This group contains the vibrant Peacock cichlids which number 28 species alone. 

Goby Cichlids

Goby ciclids are unique cichlids in both appearance and habitat and are endemic to Lake Tanganyika. They live close to the shore, grow to a large size and are generally quite peaceful.


Tropheus Cichlids

These are very popular fish in the aquarium trade. These fish occupy sandy areas and open waters and are larger and generally more peaceful than the mbuna group. They are endemic to Lake Tangyanika and are widely distributed amongst the coastal fringes of the lake.


Lake Victoria Cichlids

There are hundres of beautiful species of cichlids found in Lake Victoria but they are almost entirely comprised of the endemic species Haplochromines and Talapines. These cichlids are not available within the hobby as readily as species from Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika and therefore are much lesser known. The most known species, the ‘mbipi’, is a rock dwelling cichlid similar to mbuna and zebra cichlids.


Dwarf Cichlids

These smaller cichlids are found across west Africa. They are beautiful and personal fish that make a welcome addition to the cichlid aquarium. Perhaps the most well known, the kribensis, are a favorite amongst cichlid keepers. Other species included in this genre include: Pelvicachromis, Nanochromis, Steatocranus, Benitochromis, Pelmatochromis, Thysochromis, Chromidotilapia, and Tilapia.


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