The Fairy Cichlids of Lake Tanganyika

Author: Mike Hellweg

Pretty, peaceful, and full of personality, fairy cichlids are sure to delight you with their antics as they establish a colony in your tank.

A Cichlid for Every Tank

The cichlid fishes of Lake Tanganyika are incredibly popular in the hobby today. They range from the smallest cichlid species in the world, the easy-to-keep, colony-breeding shell-dweller Neolamprologus multifasciatus, to the massive, challenging, largest cichlid in the world Boulengerochromis microlepis. Everyone from new hobbyists to advanced breeders can find something that both interests and challenges them. Many hobbyists spend their entire hobby on one species, such as Cyphotilapia frontosa or the various Tropheus, while others search out each new species or variant as it becomes available. One of the staples of the hobby for nearly four decades has been the beautiful group of fish known as the fairy cichlids, or the Neolamprologus brichardi complex.

The members of the brichardi complex are found in every rocky habitat in the lake, where they are usually found in water from about 15 feet deep to around 75 feet deep. They have become masters of this habitat, evolving a unique cooperative behavior that allows them to successfully colonize these rocky homes despite the large number of predators that lurk both in the crevices and in the open water.

Fairy cichlids are generally not spectacularly colored, but each variant or species has its own pattern (or lack thereof in some species) of blue, black, and yellow facial bars and/or lines. The general body color is usually a shade of olive to grayish brown, often with patterning on the scales. The eyes are usually bright blue. They get their common name “fairy cichlids” from the extensions of the outer rays on their fins, especially the caudal fin that forms an elongate lyretail, which can be up to two thirds the length of the body of the fish. These extensions are usually tipped in blue or white. The dorsal and anal fins can trail back to touch the caudal fin, and the pelvic fins can sometimes reach the anal fin. The first widely distributed species, N. brichardi, was given the fanciful trade name “Princess of Burundi.”

A Bit of Science

Lake Tanganyika is vast and contains many different habitats. The rocky zones in the lake are often found around islands and are separated by miles of open water. Along the shoreline, the rocky zones are interspersed with sandy areas that can run for miles with no cover. There are areas where vast piles of snail shells have built up over the centuries. And there are areas where rivers dump into the lake.


Since the fairy cichlids are found only in the rocky zones, the populations are often geographically isolated and dispersal is rare. That means that over the generations, genetic drift has led these isolated populations in each location to become unique. Over millennia, they can become species. These species are usually found singly colonizing a specific area, but in some places, a couple species have colonized the same area and occur together without producing hybrids in the wild.

In the Tank

In our aquaria, they should be maintained separately because many of them will produce hybrids in captivity. Some of these hybrids will be fertile and can reproduce. This is not an ideal situation, and most hobbyists will not like getting the offspring of a hybrid cross, so it is best to maintain each species and further each locality in separate aquaria. If you do wind up with crosses, feel free to enjoy them in your own tank, but please do not distribute them to other hobbyists without informing them that they are aquarium variants.


There are currently nine recognized species of fairy cichlids, each with several locality variants. As always, there are lumpers and splitters who consider there to be more or fewer species. Some experts consider a few of these species to be nothing more than locality variants of other species, while others consider them all full species. In addition, it is possible that some of the other locality variants will receive full species status in the future.

I’m a hobbyist, not a scientist, so all I can do is rely upon them to tell me which species are valid. Currently, the California Academy of Sciences lists the valid species of fairy cichlids in their online Catalog of Fishes as N. brichardi, N. crassus, N. falcicula, N. gracilis, N. marunguensis, N. olivaceous, N. pulcher, N. savoryi, and N. splendens. Hobbyists often also find the beautiful N. cygnus (considered by most a variant of N. falcicula) and N. daffodil (considered a variant of N. pulcher) in the trade or at club auctions as full species, but neither is currently recognized as a separate species.

Strategy for Success

The fairy cichlids are small (usually reaching 4 inches or less) cave spawners. They have an interesting colonizing strategy. In the wild, they form pair bonds that last for several reproductive episodes.


In our aquaria, this pair bond can continue throughout their reproductive life. These pairs become the center of a colony. Eggs are laid deep in the caves, and spawning usually goes unnoticed by the hobbyist. The first sign of a spawn usually consists of the female suddenly herding a group of ¼-inch young fry near the rock pile in their tank.


As this group of fry grows older, they are not chased away from the breeding area when the next group of fry appears; they are instead put to work. They take up herding and guarding positions on the perimeter of the growing colony, both inside the pile of rocks and around the outer edges. As they grow, they move a bit farther off to extend the colony’s range. The next group of juveniles then takes on the immediate guard duty of the fry, and the parents patrol the entire area.

How the Strategy Works

This strategy allows them to breed frequently and increase their density in an area until they have nearly complete control. In the wild, there are predators that hunt young cichlid fry in the interstices of the rocks. This guard strategy allows juveniles to help protect against these hidden predators as well as the larger predators that might approach from outside the rock pile.

At some point, at least in our aquaria where there is little predation, they seem to stop breeding for a while and maintain the status quo. The juveniles might even grow into sexually mature but non-breeding adults, still guarding the outer perimeters of the colony, until one or both of the breeding pairs is no longer able to breed. These younger fish will then squabble a bit, establish a new pair, and begin to grow the colony again.

A Tank for Fairy Cichlids

The old adage is to buy as much tank as you can afford. The same goes for a tank for the brichardi complex. Set up as large a tank as you can. Some hobbyists like to combine them with other Tanganyikan species, such as the various Julidochromis species, but the fairy cichlid breeding strategy of producing overwhelming numbers with various sizes of juveniles defending the home turf will eventually force the usually tenacious julies out of their homes.


The fairy cichlids can be successfully paired with some of the open-water or sand-dwelling species in large tanks (125 gallons or larger). Otherwise, it might just be best to give in to their breeding strategy and just set up a tank for a colony of fairy cichlids. I guarantee it will be very active and very enjoyable, with constant interactions among the group and various fish popping their heads in and out of the rockwork.

Tank Requirements

I would choose a minimum of a 30-gallon tank for establishing a colony. A 55 or 75 would be even better. I’ve tried to set up colonies a few times in 20-longs but have not had success. I think this is just not enough room for them to feel comfortable enough to spawn.

Set up a pile of rounded rocks or cobbles running from the base up to near the surface. The waters of Lake Tanganyika are fairly pristine, so the fish therein do not tolerate dissolved organic substances very well. Use an oversized filter for the tank, or two smaller ones. Many hobbyists combine a hang-on-back filter for mechanical and chemical filtration with a canister filter or drip filter for biological filtration. This seems to be an ideal combination and is highly recommended. Whatever type of filter you use, make sure to maintain it according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Lake Tanganyika contains water that is hard and alkaline with a fairly high pH. There are several commercial substrates out there that are designed specifically for Tanganyikan cichlids, and I recommend using one of these. I have used them for many years with great success. If your local water is low in buffers, it is a good idea to add one of the commercial products that will improve the buffering capacity of your water. Replenish these with every water change. This, along with large, regular water changes, will keep the water in excellent shape for the fish and will prevent a sudden pH crash that could wipe out your entire tank in just a few hours.


In the wild, the fairy cichlid diet is made up of tiny crustaceans—close relatives of copepods, brine shrimp, and daphnia. They feed continuously throughout the day. These three foods in frozen, freeze-dried, or live form can make up the majority of their diet in captivity. They will also do well on high-quality flake and small-pellet diets designed for carnivorous fish.

Though they can be kept and bred on these diets, I find they show overall better color and produce more fry when fed on a more natural diet that includes at least some live foods replicating what they would get in the wild. I feed my Tanganyikan cichlids, including adult fairy cichlids, at least once a day with newly hatched baby brine shrimp. I also usually add a feeding of frozen copepods and a feeding of live daphnia at least twice a week.


It is close to impossible to sex fairy cichlids until they have bred, if even then. I’ve seen a few that I’m pretty sure are large males with a small hump on the top of their head, but I can’t say for sure if this is a definite male characteristic or just a feature of full-grown fish. Oftentimes, if you move a cichlid pair to a new tank, they might settle in but never spawn again, and the fairy cichlids are no exception.


Most breeders find it best to start out with a group of juveniles and let them settle in, grow up together, and choose their own mates. Start with at least six juveniles, which will give you a near-certain mathematical chance of getting at least one pair. You’ll usually get lucky and wind up with two pairs, which will both establish their own colonies at either end of the tank.

Spawning Technique

Once the pair or pairs begin spawning, the remaining fish should be removed. If they are siblings of the breeders, they will be tolerated and become part of the colony, helping to guard the perimeter. If they are not siblings of the pair, you might find them up near the surface trying to hide in a corner. It is best to remove these fish, as they will never be accepted into the colony. Once fry begin to appear, add extra food for them. Using a baster, gently add a squirt of newly hatched brine shrimp right into the fry group once a day. Add extra finely ground flakes at feeding time, too. As they grow and disperse, you can eventually start feeding them the same foods as the adults.

The colony will grow and ultimately take up as much room in the tank as it can, and there will be nowhere else for the fish to go. At this point, the pair usually stops spawning. Before you reach this point, it’s a good idea to thin out the tank. Many fish breeders do this once or twice a year. One caveat I will have to add is that it is nearly impossible to remove fish from a tank with a rock pile! Once it is set up, you won’t want to be tearing it down too often. But be aware that you will have to thin out the population at some point.

Tank Makeovers

Remember, in the wild, predators would be removing some of the fry and juveniles. That doesn’t usually happen in our aquaria. So once or twice a year, plan an afternoon to give the tank a makeover. I’ve found the easiest way to do so is to carefully remove the entire rock pile from the tank and then net the fish you want to remove. If you try to chase them around with a net without removing the rock pile, all you will do is spook the fish and waste your time. You might get one or two, but most will dive for the safety of the rock pile. By removing it, you will remove their hidey holes and make them much easier to catch with much less stress on both you and the fish. After removing as many fish as you feel adequate, reset the rocks in a similar arrangement. The remaining fish will figure things out on their own.

I find that most of the fairy cichlids are in high demand, and local shops usually love to get locally raised fish in trade. If you don’t yet have a relationship with a local shop, it is a good idea to begin building one over time. Buy your food, supplies, and at least a few fish there, even if the prices are a bit higher than the local big box store. Drop in regularly. Say hello to the owner or the manager, even if you’re not buying something that particular day. The support of a good local shop can be the difference between failure and success in the hobby, and the local shop needs you just as much as you need them.

Fantastic Fairies

The fairy cichlids of Lake Tanganyika are a fascinating group of fish with interesting social behavior. They’re not like the typical cichlid that guards the fry for a short time and then lets them disperse. Instead, they build a fascinating, thriving colony that can grab your attention for hours at a time. Set up a colony tank near your television, and soon you’ll find yourself watching the fish more than the TV! Even if you are lucky enough to have a fishroom full of tanks, don’t forget to set aside some time to just watch the fish. After all, that’s why we got into this hobby in the first place. And fairy cichlids put on a great show.

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