Cichlids for the Community Aquarium

Author: Richard F. Stratton

Known for their pugnacious attitudes, cichlids are often considered too aggressive for the average community tank. One long-time hobbyist, however, has found four species that will thrive in your community setup.

Enthusiasm for Cichlids Across the Board

Members of the family Cichlidae are not only the darlings of aquarium hobbyists, but they are a big hit with scientists too. There are several reasons for this. One is that the family is putting on an evolutionary side show in several parts of the world, but most notably in the Great Lakes of Africa. The cichlids have a special appeal to ethologists, those scientists who study the development of behavior in animals. Because of their complex behavior and their multiple family configurations, the cichlids are a treasure trove of possible research. This is a family of fishes in which every single species provides parental care, but different species do it in different ways! One of the most popular among hobbyists and scientists is the monogamous type, in which a pair defends and cares for the progeny together, cooperating in a way that is downright inspiring to us humans because they act just like we do, only better sometimes. The way a pair coordinates protection and communicates with one another is a marvel to watch and a source of study for scientists.

In addition to all this fascinating behavior, cichlids are a quite colorful family, so their popularity is certainly no great mystery. However, there are also drawbacks. For one thing, most cichlid species tend to be on the large side for aquariums. And because of the very parental protection that makes them so popular, they can be quite aggressive toward other fish species. For that reason, cichlid species have not generally been considered a good choice for the community aquarium.

Best Cichlids for Community Aquariums

Here I am talking about the type of community aquarium that got most of us into the tropical fish hobby: a tank of small and colorful fish species. The nearly automatic reaction is that any cichlid would be a disaster for such a tank—but that’s not always the case! Some species are quite suitable, and the purpose of this little treatise is to suggest a few of them.


Angelfish are often included in the very aquariums I am discussing. Known scientifically as Pterophyllum scalare, even these beautiful animals have some drawbacks when kept in the typical community aquarium, but most people can’t resist their exotic shape and interesting behavior. Hailing from the waters of South America, these fish are not nearly as aggressive as most cichlids, and they won’t really bother other species. They will, of course, consume fishes small enough to swallow, but that is true of nearly all fish species!

In the wild, they dwell up off the bottom and lurk among thickly vegetated areas, which happens to be one reason for the laterally compressed shape, one of the features that makes them appear so exotic. It allows them to slip through vegetation, and the stripes help provide camouflage. The male and female look almost exactly alike, and that is a sign among cichlids that the parents each provide equal care to the young.

When spawning time arrives, they place adhesive eggs on the plants (or log, or rock) and the parents take turns fanning and cleaning the eggs. When the eggs hatch out, the parents move them to areas on the plant that will hold the helpless, wiggling fry and then guard and clean them until they are free swimming. The parental care continues even to the time that the fry look like miniature replicas of their parents, but in the wild, there won’t be many of them, as even the best of guardians can’t save the entire brood.

Angels come in all colors because they have been kept for countless generations in aquaria, and selective breeding has produced numerous color variations. For my money, it’s hard to beat the original wild coloration, but to each his own. Once called the “king of aquarium fish,” the angel still has wide appeal, and it is one of the first fish that visitors to the aquarium ask about. Although widely kept in community aquariums, most hobbyists get them in pairs, but that’s not the ideal way to do it, as the dominant angel will tend to pick on the other. It’s better to have about six angels, as that diffuses the aggression. Since the aggression is mild, it is not absolutely imperative to keep at least six angels, but it is more humane.

Another problem with angels is that they get too large for the community aquarium, but the growth is slow, taking them about a year to attain the larger size. They aren’t a danger to other fishes even then (provided they’re too large to be swallowed), but they may not look size-appropriate for an aquarium with small fish species. If the aesthetic aspect is a problem, you will likely have little difficulty swapping your larger angels for some juvenile ones, as there is always demand for fully grown angels.

The Ram

Although not nearly as popular as angels, the ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi) is nearly a perfect cichlid for a community tank of small fish. It has been in the hobby long enough that a variety of color variations have been selectively bred, but here again, I much prefer the original wild coloration. Although this species is small and inoffensive, it is all cichlid. It is monogamous, and pairs can usually be picked out by aquarium-shop personnel, so in this case, it is perfectly fine to have just one pair.

The name “ram” comes from the “ramirezi” part of the scientific name, and it makes for a handy popular name. Although the species hails from the waters of South America, chances are that the pair you get will be descended from a long line of aquarium-bred ancestors. Even as youngsters, the pair will tend to hang out together, and they are usually sold fairly close to sexual maturity. Although quite lovely in their own delicate way, rams aren’t quite as impressive as cardinal tetras and the like when it comes to coloration, but visitors soon begin to focus on them, as even these tiny little guys have the cichlid personality and interesting behavior.

They are small enough that they won’t dig up plants, but I can recall one pair causing consternation to their owner because they managed to nearly cover a plant in gravel while digging a spawning pit. This transgression was quickly forgiven, as the pair cared for their fry by providing stern, but non-lethal, protection from the other species in the aquarium and actually managed to raise up some of the young in a busy community tank. Such success can’t be assumed, however, as there are just too many fishes in the typical community tank for complete success—even for the best of parents.

As is typical of so many of their larger monogamous brethren, the pair lays adhesive eggs on a cleaned rock and then digs spawning pits for the young to be kept until they are free swimming. One reason for moving the young from pit to pit is to ensure that they are regularly cleaned so as to avoid bacterial and fungal infections.

Neolamprologus caudopuntatus

Neolamprologus caudopuntatus is a little cichlid endemic to (found only in) Lake Tanganyika in Africa, and it is so little known among tropical fish hobbyists that it doesn’t have a popular name. That’s because it is mainly kept by cichlid specialists, and such folk are so far gone and have become so used to scientific names that they seldom try to come up with popular names. Nevertheless, this is an excellent cichlid for the community tank of small fish species. It is nearly as good a pick as the ram except for a few drawbacks. The ram is nearly perfect because it is small, reaching 2 inches at the most, and this species is of similar size. However, it moves a little quicker and is less forgiving when guarding fry. And then there is the matter of color. If you thought the ram was subdued compared to some of the brighter tetras, this species can seem nearly colorless. In spite of that, it is elegant in appearance, as it does have delicate shades of color and its dorsal fin sports a red margin at the top.

In the lake, this species lays its eggs on a rock or in a pit dug in a cave in a rocky area. When spawning time arrives, a pair will make do somehow, even utilizing a pit in the center of the tank. It will ferociously protect an area around the eggs and eventual fry, but the perimeter it defends is only about 12 inches in diameter and its attacks are mild—even though they are a little more serious than those of the ram.

Apistogramma Species

Again, we revert to scientific names, although members of the genus Apistogramma have always been recommended for the aquarium. There is a variety of reproductive behavior in this group, from polygamy to monogamy to mouthbrooding. So this group will allow aquarists to become familiar with different reproductive strategies. However, I would tend to recommend species in which polygamy is the game. That way, you can keep a number of these cichlids, several females with one male. The females will have their own territory, which they will guard without doing damage to community species.

One reason for that is the small size of the females. When you become experienced in observing fish behavior, you will no doubt note that the females tend to be in phase with one another. That is, they alternate spawning times, but the female takes over the main protection of the brood while the male continues to patrol the entire territory of his harem, like a small-but-amusing tyrant. The females change color rather dramatically at spawning time, usually sporting a yellow coloration with dramatic dark markings. They become quite fierce in defense of their eggs and brood, but they are in no way dangerous to other community fishes, as their objective is simply to keep other fishes away. Besides, they are quite small (smaller than the males) and they aren’t capable of doing any real damage.

You may want to look at the species available at your local aquarium shop, but I would recommend A. agassizii or A. cacatuoides as good examples for first timers with this genus.

Create a Cichlid Community

It has been my intention to provide some examples of cichlid species that would be good in the community tank of the type I have described. However, my intention is that only one of the listed species would be included. Things could get complicated if you tried to add several different cichlid species to the tank. I would also warn that when you add a cichlid species to your tank, you have a great chance of contracting “cichlid fever.” This is not an ailment, but it can seem like one, as you can become so interested in cichlids that you spend the rest of your life in delicious study of a very remarkable family. Be warned: It has happened to many of us!