• Species: Apistogramma nijsseni

  • Species: Apistogramma agassizi

  • Species: Cleithracara maroni

  • Species: Biotodoma wavrini

  • Species: Microgeophagus ramirezi

South American dwarf cichlids

13 April 2018

South America is home to a vast array of tropical fishes. Many of these fishes have become immensely popular within the aquatics industry such as the Neon Tetra or Red Bellied Piranha. One group of fish that have become particularly important is the cichlids. This group includes species such as Discus, Angel Fish, Oscars and Rams. This article will focus on members of this family known as Dwarf Cichlids such as the Apistogramma genus that originate from South America.

Dwarf Cichlids are popular as they display much of the colour and behavior of their larger counterparts but can be kept in much small aquaria. Another benefit is that they are usually non-aggressive and make great additions to community aquaria.

Taxonomy and Distribution

‘The term 'Dwarf cichlid' usually refers to any cichlid that is under 10cm (4") when it is fully-grown. It is often attributed to species from South America and West Africa which are suited to soft acidic conditions, although the term is actually only used within fishkeeping. It is not recognized in science and as such has no taxonomic or ecological grounding making it poorly defined. In order to understand their taxonomy, one must look at the taxonomy of the family Cichlidae (from which they originate) as a whole.

Dwarf Cichlids are part of Cichlidae, one of the largest vertebrate families with over 1,650 species having been described. It is part of a group of fishes known as Labroidei, which also includes Damselfishes, Wrasses and Surfperches. There are currently nine subfamilies of cichlids recognised, which includes Astronotinae, Cichlasomatinae, Cichlinae, Etroplinae Geophaginae, Heterochromidinae, Pseudocrenilabrinae and Ptychochrominae. Cichlid taxonomy is, however, still widely debated and is often too difficult to correctly classify genera currently. As such many species remain undescribed whilst many are discovered year after year. Estimates of the actual number of species range from 2,000 to 3,000.

Most cichlids originate from Africa and South America where they are at their most diverse. An estimated 1600 species are thought to originate from Africa whilst approximately 120 species can be found in Central America and even as far north as the Rio Grande in Texas. Asia, however, has a significantly small collection of native cichlids, with just 9 species.

General Care

Dwarf Cichlids typically require soft, acidic water with plenty of cover from plants. When keeping these fish water quality is paramount. Certain species have a reputation for being particularly demanding when it comes to water chemistry, although most will do well in moderately soft and slightly acidic or neutral water. This can be achieved through the use of RO water with an added pH buffer or mature aquarium water. They are ideal for community aquaria as they generally non-aggressive, although some species can become territorial when breeding. Dwarf Cichlids are typically timid and for this reason should not be kept with larger Cichlids. The use of ‘dither fish’ is recommended to get the most out of them. Dither fish is a term used by hobbyists to describe fish whose more active behaviour (typically towards the top of the aquarium) reassures other species that predators are not present. Good choices include many species of Danios and Tetras.

Ram Cichlid Microgeophagus ramirezi

The Ram Cichlid is among the most popular of the Dwarf Cichlids throughout the aquatic trade and is an outstanding addition to a community tank with its highly attractive intense colouring. Several varieties exist which include ‘Gold’, ‘Purple’, ‘Euro blue’ varieties as well as the relatively new ‘Electric blue’ form. This species is often short lived in many hobbyists’ tanks due to its demands in regard to water quality. Most will not fulfil their normal lifespan in hard alkaline conditions and simply will not breed. They will, however, thrive if kept in soft, slightly acidic water with a slightly higher than normal water temperature. It is important to acclimatise these fish slowly to new conditions and so it is best to check what conditions they are coming from before introducing them. This species tends to do best when a male is kept with at least two females.

Agassiz’ Dwarf Cichlid Apistogramma agassizzi

Agassiz’ Dwarf Cichlid is an attractive species originating from Brazil that reaches up to approximately 8cm. It is usually seen with a yellowish body with blue or green metallic markings, although several colour varieties such as ‘fire red’ also exist. Males are larger with elongated fins and brighter colouring. Again, this species prefers soft, acidic water although may adapt to slightly harder alkaline conditions. It will take dry food but it is carnivorous and will prefer live or frozen food such as bloodworm and brine shrimp. It will do well in a community set-up, but will become territorial when breeding.

Panda Dwarf Cichlid Apistogramma nijsseni

The Panda Dwarf Cichlid is a peaceful species originating from Peru, South America that typically reaches a length of 5cm. It is an attractive species with the males being larger with a metallic blue sheen and red-tipped caudal fin, whilst the females are yellow in colour with black patches. Like A. agassizzi, A. nijsseni prefers soft, slightly acidic conditions in which it will look its best, but will usually adapt to slightly harder and more alkaline conditions. Conditions however must be near perfect in order to induce spawning. This species will take dry food but prefers live or frozen foods.

Keyhole Cichlid Cleithracara maroni

Despite its lack of intense colouring, this species remains a popular choice due to its peaceful nature. If it is the sole species of cichlid in the aquarium it is advisable to add dither fish such as tetras to make it feel more secure. Other characins such as Hatchetfish or Pencilfish also work well for this purpose. In larger aquaria this species can be combined with other peaceful cichlids such as Discus or Angelfish. The aquarium itself should be dimly lit with a dark substrate and soft, acidic water. It will typically reach an adult size of 10cm in the aquarium

Orinoco Eartheater Biotodoma wavrini

The Orinoco Eartheater originates from Venezuela, occupying blackwater environments. An attractive species reaching 10cm in length; it has a brownish body flecked with bright blue along the fin edges and on the face. Soft, acidic water is preferred whilst a soft substrate should be provided. Offer live or frozen food such as bloodworm. Any dried food offered should contain some form of vegetable matter. This species does best when kept as a group, and is compatible with most peaceful species being peaceful itself and will not predate on smaller fishes.