4 Favorite South American Dwarf Cichlids

Joshua Wiegert

The South American continent hosts an incredible number of cichlids, including many that we can define as “dwarf cichlids.” This term really has very little scientific basis and is instead a colloquialism used to mean smaller cichlids. The exact definition varies among aquarists, but I choose to follow how noted cichlid academic Dr. Paul Loiselle delineates the dwarfs: any species of cichlid for which one of the sexes reaches an average maximum size of 4 inches (10 cm) or less. Going by this definition, there are several hundred dwarf cichlids from South America alone, spread across about a dozen different genera. This is an incredibly diverse group as far as things like preferred water conditions, compatibility, and aggression go, so picking a few representative species is somewhat difficult.

I’ve tried to pick four good representative South American dwarf cichlid species in what follows, but note my caution about making any generalities about these fishes as a group; they are so diverse as to make any hard-and-fast rules about their biology or behaviors nearly impossible to nail down.

#1: Apistogramma cacatuoides

The genus Apistogramma is one of the most speciose genera of fishes out there, with nearly 100 species described in the genus and likely as many more undescribed. It has been divided into several lineages, some of which may someday be promoted to full genera. Undoubtedly, the best known of these fish is Apistogramma cacatuoides, the cockatoo dwarf cichlid.

Widespread throughout the Amazon River basin, A. cacatuoides is incredibly diverse in the wild. Having been in the hobby for 50 years, they have been selectively bred to produce several variants that could never be seen in the wild, including raucously orange and red fishes. Their dorsal fins are rather large, with the extended first rays resembling the crest of a cockatoo bird. A thick, dark stripe runs along the side of the body, though the stripe is subdued beneath the rest of the color in many domestic strains.

Cockatoo cichlids are hardy, adaptable fish, though they prefer a neutral to slightly acidic pH and soft water; harder water may inhibit breeding. Wild fish are far less adaptable and thrive only in soft, acid water. In the wild, they’re often found in slow-flowing, shallow streams, typically at warmer temperatures of around 78° to 82°F (26° to 28°C). 

These shallow streams are dominated by forest litter, such as leaves and chunks of wood, which should be part of their aquarium aquascape. Aquatic plants are also found growing in their natural habitat, and the cockatoo will make a wonderful addition to a planted aquarium. Additionally, the aquarium should contain some sort of natural caves. These can be bends and indents in driftwood or, more typically, coconut or Brazil nut husks with holes drilled into them. Some aquarists will use an overturned clay flowerpot. The fish don’t seem to be particularly choosy. 

Male A. cacatuoides are larger and more colorful than females, although females in spawning condition will turn a bright, brilliant yellow. Males also have longer fin elements in the tail and dorsal fin when mature. This makes it very easy to identify definite males, though finding definite females can be a challenge. As with many of their fellow apistos, immature male cockatoos often look like females, as do subdominant adult males.

Some males simply take on female coloration and patterning and stay that way. These so-called “sneaker males” invade the territory of a dominant, fully colored male and spawn with the females. Interestingly, it is not unusual for one of these sneaker males to cohabitate with a single full-color male as a “pair” for lengthy periods of time. They do have the potential to become dominant males, and in fact, I’ve had a pair that refused to spawn and upon introducing a new female had the old “female” kill the old male, take on dominant male coloration, and spawn with the new female, indicating that this was simply one of these sneaker males.

It’s important to note that these fish should not be maintained as a single pair. Males typically spawn with multiple females, and in a pair, a single female may become exhausted. More important, there is a huge difference between having a pair and having a compatible pair. I’ve often had multiple pairs in separate tanks that never spawned. Swapping them around frequently results in spawns, because it isn’t that the fish aren’t ready to spawn or anything like that; they just don’t like their partners.

Once a spawn happens, the male generally patrols an outer area of the territory while the female tends to the nest. The eggs hatch in just a few days, and the fry are herded around the tank by the female. Other than protecting the overall area, the male takes very little interest in the spawn. Indeed, he often just finds another female and spawns again.

While the fish can be maintained and spawned in virtually any water, both pH and temperature should be closely monitored when raising fry. The sex of Apistogramma is not determined when they are born but at some point about 30 days post-hatching (with variance based on their growth rate, and also between species).

The ratio of sexes in a batch of fry can be heavily skewed by temperature and pH, with high temperature and low pH favoring a ratio tilted heavily toward males. While the traditional thought is that pH is the more important factor for sex determination, scientific studies have shown that temperature is more important. A. cacatuoides should be maintained at a pH of about 6.5 with a temperature of 78°F (26°C) to produce an approximately even ratio of sexes.

#2: Nannacara anomala


The genus Nannacara is an interesting group of fishes with six species. The best known of these is N. anomala, the golden dwarf cichlid. This beautiful fish used to be quite common in the hobby and available at most retail stores, but it has declined significantly in popularity while increasing significantly in price.

They are really beautiful fish with a honey-gold body covered in iridescent blue-green flecks. The fins of the males may have red and orange in them. Native to Guyana and Suriname, almost all of these fish are commercially produced nowadays. In the wild, they are found in soft, acidic water without much flow. As a long-term commercially bred fish, they’ve become quite elastic in their demands and will spawn in relatively hard water without any issues. Their native waterbodies are often flooded meadows and forests where underwater plants are abundant. This is an ideal fish for planted aquariums. 

The Latin genus literally translates to “little acara,” and indeed, these are small fish. The female will reach a maximum size of only about 1½ inches (4 cm), while the male will tower at the gargantuan size of almost 3 inches (7.5 cm). Extremely peaceful, the golden dwarf seems to have forgotten how to be a cichlid—they tend not to be overly territorial and are tolerant of most other fishes. Breeding females are the exception. Females are aggressively protective of their spawns, and tankmates in a breeding tank may be harmed. They may also harm males in small tanks as a means of warding off their overly amorous attempts.

Oddly enough, the peaceful nature of N. anomala often goes out the window when kept with Corydoras-type catfishes. These catfish are significant predators of Nannacara eggs and fry, and the cichlids seem to take a “first strike” approach, attacking the cats even when not breeding. 

Breeding this species is fairly easy. They can be somewhat difficult to sex when immature, though the longer fins and red highlights give males away. Females tend to have much less or no spangling on the body but an overall golden color. When they spawn, the females take on an incredibly beautiful pattern that makes them look like an entirely different species. The fry are quite large and will quickly take ground flakes and smaller species of daphnia or cyclops, microworms, and similar foods.

#3: Mikrogeophagus altispinosus


One of the best-known South American dwarf cichlids is the ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi). This fish has an interesting nomenclatural history. Originally described as a species of Apistogramma, it was moved to the newly erected genus Microgeophagus in 1957 in a hobbyist book, without diagnostics. No further review of the genus was apparently published. It essentially sat there until 1977, when Dr. Sven Kullander found the genus Microgeophagus invalid and created the genus Papiliochromis for the ram. However, in 1968, a group of Dutch authors published the genus Mikrogeophagus as the correct genus for the ram, again in a hobbyist publication but this time with diagnostics. In 2003, Kullander acknowledged that this genus had seniority. However, the Dutch authors had changed the C to a K, and Kullander and others believe that their publication’s diagnostics give it authority. As such, the official spelling of the genus is with a K, but there are many authors who feel that the 1957 publication has authority and continue to spell it with a C. 

While the ram is the best-known member of the genus, its often underappreciated cousin, the Bolivian ram cichlid, is my personal favorite. M. altispinosus is a beautiful fish in its own right, with bright yellow across the body, gorgeous red highlights on the fins, and blue marks across the caudal. While not as showy as the regular ram, it tends to be a lot more hardy. Found in Bolivia and Brazil, this fish is much more forgiving of water conditions. Bolivian rams may be maintained at a typical tropical temperature but will also easily handle lower temps. Found in clear water, the ideal pH for this fish is about neutral—it does not need the soft, acidic water its cousin demands. 

While the ram does indeed resemble an Apistogramma, the Bolivian ram cichlid truly earns its genus name Mikrogeophagus, as it looks like a small Geophagus eartheater. Its diet is similar as well. It will pick small bits of sand and debris from the aquarium floor and sift it, looking for food, so it is best kept over a fine sand substrate. Gravel or course substrate should be avoided. Sinking foods are ideal and should be distributed over this open sand. Fast-swimming, active feeders will make it difficult for the Bolivian ram to feed, so those types of tankmates should be avoided in favor of slower, more tranquil species.

Aquatic plants generally do not grow in their natural habitat, but they can be grown in an aquarium featuring Bolivian ram cichlids, provided the fish have open areas to sift. Alternatively, driftwood, especially branch and root wood, can make an attractive feature, as can the addition of oak leaves and other forest litter. 

The Bolivian ram is almost a schooling cichlid. Small groups seem to form in the wild, and the fish are rarely found alone. Pairs typically separate from the group and spawn on rocks, leaves, and other smooth surfaces (including tank glass). The male and female work together to raise their fry.

#4: Crenicara punctulatum


Several South American dwarf cichlids are given the name of “checkerboard dwarf cichlid,” but in my mind, this name evokes the interesting Crenicara punctulatum. These widespread fish are found throughout the Amazon basin and are often exported from Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. Despite this, they’re very rarely seen in the trade—the name “checkerboard dwarf cichlid” is more commonly applied to members of the genus Dicrossus. It’s a beautiful little fish with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern and gold highlights on its body. Females have bright orange or red ventral fins. They are found in small creeks, typically in areas of dense plant growth, making them a great choice for your planted aquarium. 

I mentioned before that determining the sex of juveniles with most species of Apistogramma can be a problem, but most juveniles look like females, and typically only a few dominant males are easy to pick out. Since males can look like females for a long time, then suddenly blossom, some aquarists suspect that the fish may actually be capable of changing sex. While there’s no real evidence to support this, the checkerboard does lend some credence to this theory. All checkerboards are born female. After about a year or so, the dominant female in a group will become a male and claim the remainder of the group as his harem. The male will guard the overall territory while multiple females guard their respective batches of fry or eggs. 

While the ability to change sex is fairly common among marine fishes, it is extremely rare in freshwater fish. It’s a one-way change; once a female becomes a male, he will forever be male. 

These checkerboards are fairly easy to keep and breed but really must be kept in softer water. Hard water will inhibit egg hatches. They’re a little bigger than most of the other dwarf cichlids—males reach about 4½ inches (11.5 cm), with females staying well under that—but they are generally quite peaceful.

As a hermaphroditic fish, it usually isn’t difficult to get both males and females, provided you are patient, though I have heard of a few aquarists who have bought large batches of all males.

Big Fishkeeping Thrills in Small Packages

There are so many beautiful dwarf cichlids out there, not just in South America but far beyond as well. These fish exhibit all the behaviors and intelligence of their larger brethren but in a smaller—and often much more peaceful—package. If you’re looking for a great little cichlid, be sure to give one of these little wonders a try.

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