A Giant Among Dwarfs: Apistogramma steindachneri

Author: Radek Bednarczuk

The large-growing Apistogramma steindachneri is a great option for community tanks and breeding setups alike.

While a large majority of Apistogramma cichlids are very small fish, which makes them impossible for hobbyists to house with larger South American cichlids, there are luckily some exceptions. Apistogramma steindachneri is undoubtedly one of these, as its substantial size makes it possible to keep with many other species of South Americans. Its other assets are interesting coloration and general hardiness.

Apistogramma steindachneri Basics

The fish was first studied as early as 1875 by Franz Steindachner, and this is the origin of its specific epithet. The species has a characteristic black lateral spot and a lateral band of the same color, while mature males boast a lyrate (lyre-shaped) caudal fin. This dwarf cichlid is a hardy fish, which, unlike the majority of the Apistogramma species, does not require soft and acidic water—it is perfectly comfortable at a pH of 7 and general hardness of up to 10 dGH. That is truly a great asset when keeping these fish; one is not forced to bother preparing the water using, for instance, an RO filter, which can be costly and time consuming.

A. steindachneri inhabits the river systems of Suriname, Guyana, and eastern Venezuela. In its natural environment, it lives in quiet waters or small streams having submerged leaves, pieces of driftwood, and flooded terrestrial vegetation. The pH in which it lives ranges from acidic to alkaline. When purchasing any fish it is important to quarantine it for at least a month, but this is especially important for wild-caught A. steindachneri because they are often carriers of internal parasites, such as tapeworms, Hexamita,etc.

Aquarium Conditions

This species grows to a medium size. The males may slightly exceed 10 cm (4 inches) and the females are half that length on average. This allows you to keep them with mid-sized cichlids with no need to worry that they will become a snack. In my aquarium I have kept them with large GeophagusSatanoperca, Aequidens, Heros, and other similarly sized species.

Proper Tank Dimensions

The appropriate tank length is dependent on the number of fish being kept. I know from experience that the minimum for a male and two females is a 100-cm (40-inch) long tank. If you have a larger number of males, the tank should be suitably bigger, for instance 130 to 150 cm (50 to 60 inches) long. The height is not as important because the fish keep to the bottom of the tank.

Establishing Territories

Each sexually mature male will establish a territory, which he will fiercely defend from the others. It is advisable, therefore, to place objects such as roots, stones, coconut shells, and fallen leaves in the tank at some distance from one another. These spots will usually be chosen by the males as the centers of their territories. Males must be separated from one another with objects such as plants and driftwood that will block their lines of sight to lessen their aggression and minimize territorial fighting. This species is very comfortable in a densely planted tank and it is therefore advisable to use water sprite, clumps of moss, and small Echinodorus or Cryptocoryne.


Food is not a problem at all, for these cichlids readily take both frozen and dry foods, preferably in the form of small granules that fall to the bottom. Do not forget to add foods that contain chitin or cellulose, such as minced shrimp, krill, or spinach.

These fish, as is the case with the majority of the Apistogramma species, do not tolerate increased levels of nitrogen compounds. An efficient biological filter and weekly partial water changes, preferably 30 to 40 percent, are therefore essential, as is good aeration.


Sexual dimorphism is strongly pronounced in adult fish; the males are significantly larger and heavier than the females. Males have a lyrate caudal fin with their anal, dorsal, and ventral fins elongated and truncate. The ventral fins are blue and their dorsal has a red margin. Comparatively, females have a round caudal fin, a distinct stripe appears on their abdomen, and their ventral fins are black.

It is advisable to buy a group of young specimens, for instance 10, and try to have a greater number of females than males to prevent incessant fighting. The male can have from one to as many as six females living within his territory.

Encouraging Breeding

As for the physical and chemical parameters required for reproduction, this species is not particularly fussy and will accept any pH value below 8. The water can be soft to medium hard, and the temperature can be 22° to 30°C (72° to 86°F).

To encourage adult females to breed, a change of aquarium decor may prove helpful—it is often enough to add a few overturned coconut shells or small pots with tiny openings, which can also be covered with a clump of Java moss. The females will choose one of these secluded hideouts as a place to lay their eggs.

Signs of Spawning

During spawning, the female assumes a characteristic bright canary-yellow color and will lay up to a few hundred eggs in her chosen hiding place. If the male is too big to squeeze in through an opening (in the coconut shell, for instance), then he will propel his sperm, mixed with water, with energetic swipes of his caudal fin—it is a really striking spectacle.

To help him and ensure that the milt covers the eggs evenly, the female will swim in and out of the hideout, thus creating a current, which increases the chances of the eggs being fertilized. The spawning can last for up to two hours. Afterwards, the female no longer tolerates the presence of her partner but vigorously chases him away from the spawning site and sets to fanning the eggs with her pectoral fins, mouthing them clean whenever necessary.

Water Treatment

At this time it is advisable to treat the water with some medication to keep the eggs from fungusing. After no more than three days, depending on the temperature in the aquarium, the larvae hatch, and after about another week the young will begin to forage. You can then give them freshly hatched Artemia, microworms, and algae mashed to a pulp. The female’s parental care lasts for a few weeks, and the male will tolerate the young, but as they grow bigger (especially when it comes to the males) that tolerance will wear thin.

If you want to rear a large number, it might be better to transfer them to a separate tank after about a month. Frequent partial water changes should also be performed, preferably twice a day, combined with vacuuming the substrate, or large fry losses can occur. You will be able to identify the males after four to five months of intensive feeding, and in a few more months the females will take on their adult characteristics.

The use of coconut shells with small openings in the reproduction of the Apistogramma is very practical because you can easily turn the shell over and block the opening (with your thumb, for instance), and the female, together with her eggs, can be easily transferred to a separate tank. Remember that the physical and chemical parameters of the water in the breeding tank should be the same as it is in the community aquarium. When you finally have fry, it is advisable to place a large clump of Java moss beside the coconut shell so the growing youngsters will find microorganisms, including algae, to supplement their diet in the first weeks of their life.

A Great Dwarf Cichlid

This species can often be found in the aquaria of hobbyists who are beginning their Apistogrammaadventure, and there are a number of reasons for that. This dwarf cichlid is forgiving of beginners’ mistakes and will easily breed in the artificial environment of the aquarium, making it the perfect species for the inexperienced. The fish’s size is also an asset, as it allows the species to be kept with much bigger fish.

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