Breeding Hemichromis lifalili

Author: Dan Woodland

The author offers his account of breeding and raising up the fry of the colorful West African cichlid Hemichromis lifalili.

A New Breeding Project

I was looking for something different to breed, and when I saw the beautiful red coloration of some Hemichromis lifalili a local fish hobbyist was offering, I knew I had found my next breeding project. I typically raise and breed large nasty cichlids like “Cichlasomaboucourti, ex-Cichlasoma festae, and Parachromis managuensis, so I figured working with a cichlid that didn’t require an aquarium of 75 gallons or larger would be a nice change of pace. In the end I was not disappointed.

Hemichromis Lifalili Basics

The adults sport a bright red body with light blue spots forming loosely defined lines the length of the body. The unpaired fins and operculum can be a deeper red with more intense light blue spotting. Spots on the unpaired fins also form vertical rows that fade and reappear as their mood changes. Also occurring on the upper operculum is a larger black/blue spot. Their body color changes quickly between a dull and bright red coloration when stressed, hiding, or tending fry, with the most intense coloration occurring during breeding.

Hemichromis lifalili is from Lake Tumba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa. Formerly know as Zaire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has gone through several name changes in its tumultuous history. Lake Tumba is a shallow lake between 2 to 6 meters (approximately 6 to 20 feet) deep in the northwestern part of the country. It is part of the Congo River Basin, its depth rising and falling with seasonal flooding. It hosts approximately 114 species of fish and was discovered in 1883 by Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

Tank Setup

For my Hemichromis lifalili I used a 20-gallon tank (12 x 16 x 24 inches) with a mixture of white sand and black quartz as the substrate. Water temperature is maintained at 76°F with a pH of 7.6 and a general hardness of 110 ppm. The hood was an all-in-one unit with built-in filtration and fluorescent lights. Water changes of 50 percent are made manually every 10 to 14 days or as needed to replace evaporated water. No additives are used with exception of a chlorine remover.

As I mentioned earlier I usually raise large, mean cichlids, so I use only heavy rocks and other materials to provide cover and spawning sites in my tanks. A definite no-no with larger cichlids is live plants. In addition to digging up or eating the plants, they will pick up and throw around lighter objects like plastic plants and even heaters! More than once, I’ve pulled broken heater glass from the substrates of tanks housing larger cichlids. However, this time I was able to use live plants to provide cover, including swordplants like Echinodorus horizontalis, Echinodorus quadricostatus and Aponogeton longiplumulosus. I kept the plants in good shape with weekly 10-ml doses of an iron supplement. Not only did the plants look good, but they helped keep the tank clean by absorbing nutrients (fish waste) directly from the water, and they provided a great place for fry to hide and graze.


The adults willingly accepted various flakes, sticks, and pellets immediately after being added to one of my tanks. Being hearty eaters, they were in breeding shape in no time.

I originally placed the pair alone in a 100-gallon tank with lots of rocks, silk plants, and room to roam. The first spawn occurred after only one week in the tank—much faster than I had planned, as this setup was meant to be a quarantine tank. (I always quarantine my new fish.) My initial plan had been to set them up in a tank at work, which I described above and consider my “official” spawning setup for this fish. Shortly after the fry became free-swimming, the male began luring the female to another location in the tank, leaving the fry from the first spawn to fend for themselves. The male would tempt the female into spawning by darting back and forth between the current spawning site and the next spawning site he had chosen. At each end of the trip between the two locations he would shake and shimmy and make head motions like he was inviting her to his bachelor pad. Unfortunately this did not work very well because the male quickly beat her up after she would not leave the first spawn. He did enough damage that a white cottony fungus grew on her side. To cure the fungus I treated her with a cotton swab soaked with an antiseptic, carefully removing the fungus.

Male-Female Interaction

After keeping the female in a hospital tank for a short time, I moved the pair into a 20-gallon tank in my office, watching closely for any aggression. To my surprise there was no aggression but there was immediate and intense courting action from both the male and female; she was heavily laden with eggs and ready to spawn. After the eggs were laid, both parents guarded the eggs with the female being the main caregiver. Both parents would guard the fry with vigor, attacking the glass when I touched it with my finger. When the fry became free-swimming this time the male helped care for them and didn’t attempt to spawn again while the fry were in the tank. The fry did not eat from the side of the parents as some have reported seeing in Central American egg layers.

Using Live Plants

As I mentioned earlier, I use live plants in their tank for a number of reasons. The parents didn’t particularly like where I put the plants so they moved them around until there was a nice open space in the middle of the tank where they could see the entire area. As long as I replanted the plants in the locations they chose everyone was happy, especially the fish! The surprising thing about this was the purposeful way they moved the plants, almost like they were doing interior decorating.

The Eggs Hatch

I estimated 400 to 500 eggs were laid in each spawn, a surprising number considering the size of the female at the time (only 2 inches standard length, and the male was slightly larger). The parents hid the eggs and wigglers very well, keeping them hidden from view until the fry were free-swimming. The eggs showed the same characteristics of a typical Central American egg layer—small, round, opaque, and adhesive. Eggs hatched very quickly, in three days, and became free swimming after only seven days. After the fry became free-swimming, the parents would help feed them by taking up mouthfuls of sand then spitting it into the cloud of fry. As the sand fell to the bottom of the tank, the fry would aggressively attack the grains of sand following it to the substrate then grazing on the sand after it reached the bottom of the tank. If the fry were on the bottom when the parents used this feeding technique they would quickly rise up to meet the incoming “food.”

Raising the Fry

Fry greedily accepted de-encapsulated brine shrimp and grew very rapidly on three or four feedings a day. I noticed a high level of aggression within the fry ranks as they cannibalized each other very early in life. The large number of fry quickly fell 50 percent! Within eight weeks, the majority of fry were larger than one inch and began to show the red coloration of mom and dad.

There are always some interesting observations to be made while raising and breeding fish. In this case it’s the size disparity in the fry. There were two distinct sizes of fry, those at one-inch standard length and those slightly smaller. Were males and females being defined so early or was it simply survival of the fittest? I tried a small experiment; I removed all the larger fry to see if some of the remaining fry would outgrow others in the group. After two weeks I determined they did not—they were all the same size. Time will tell if the larger fish in the group removed were males or just grew faster. That’s one of the many things I love about raising cichlids, you never stop learning or seeing something new. There are many cichlids out there to work with so I’m sure I’ll be busy!

I highly recommend Hemichromis lifalili for cichlidophiles or even beginning hobbyists. They are easy to care for, don’t require a large tank, aren’t overly aggressive (as cichlids go), and are excellent parents that provide protection and food until the fry are very large. Nothing beats the sight of a pair raising a cloud of fry around them…enjoy!

Shining Jewels

The genus Hemichromis is in most aquarists’ minds divided into two groups: the larger, spotted or banded species and the smaller, red-with-dots jewel species. Most of these fish were described in the Nineteenth Century, and the “jewel cichlid,” identified as H. bimaculatus, has long been an aquarium staple. Its popularity, however, remained limited due both to its aggressive personality and to its showing the full bright red coloration only when breeding.

Some jewel cichlids, though, showed much more consistent coloration, were not quite as aggressive, and remained smaller. It turns out that several species were being imported, including H. letourneuxi and a couple of new species identified at the end of the Twentieth Century, including H. lifalili and H. stellifer. These have rekindled interest in these beautiful fishes. It is quite possible that some hybridization has occurred in aquarium stocks, especially in the domesticated strains. Care and breeding of all these related species are the same.