12 Types of Dwarf Cichlids from Central America

Mike Hellweg

Cichlids are among the most popular of all aquarium fishes and have been for decades. Their colorful, outgoing nature, intelligence, family behavior, ease of care, and interaction with the world outside their aquarium make them hobby favorites and true aquatic pets. Easily half of all fish kept and bred by hobbyists today are from the family Cichlidae—including many dwarf cichlid types.
By far, the majority of cichlids in the modern hobby are from East Africa, primarily from Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika. But this is just a small portion of the cichlid species that make excellent aquarium fishes. 
In the early days of the U.S. hobby, many of the cichlids available were from Central America. Aquarists had smaller tanks back then and didn’t always realize that they were a bit boisterous and territorial, needing more space than those tiny aquariums provided, especially when it came to breeding time.  

Also, the smaller tanks of the day were usually home to a mixed community of fishes from all over the world, and larger Central American cichlids don’t really fit this style of aquarium keeping. The common names they were given in the hobby reflected this nature: Jack Dempsey (a 1920s world champion heavyweight boxer), red devil, wolf cichlid, convict, jaguar cichlid, etc. 
This bad reputation stuck with Central American cichlids to this day, though it is often unwarranted, especially considering some of the types of dwarf cichlids that come from Central America. They are actually excellent aquarium residents, excellent parents, interactive with their humans, and overall very enjoyable to keep, providing, as with all fish, that their particular needs are met.
In the wild, most of the smaller Central American cichlids are found in small streams and rivers that sometimes become slow-flowing backwaters and almost ponds during the dry season, though in others, the current can be very strong. The majority of the streams are rocky or cobble-bottomed, with fallen trees breaking up the habitat. 
Though there is algae, true plants are few and far between in these streams. The water is usually hard and alkaline, with a pH over 7.0 and temperatures usually in the mid to upper 70s F (mid 20s C). Many of the smaller Central American cichlids are generalist feeders that consume insects, aquatic invertebrates, detritus, aufwuchs, algae, and sometimes small fish.

The Delightful Dozen

All of the species listed here are considered Central American dwarfs. For the most part, true dwarf cichlids are usually considered to be those that top out at about 4 inches (10 cm). Some of the below fishes will sometimes reach up to 5 or 6 inches (13 to 15 cm) in the wild—their reported “maximum size”—but in my experience and that of many others, they usually remain 4 inches or less in the aquarium.

The Convict Cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata)

Amatitlania nigrofasciata 8 (1)

Amatitlania nigrofasciata, the convict or zebra cichlid, is the quintessential Central American dwarf cichlid. They top out around 4 inches (10 cm) but will spawn at half that size. They are packed with “piscinality,” inexpensive, easy to care for, easy to breed, and are often recommended as the perfect introductory species to keeping Central American cichlids. 
Just be aware of their well-earned reputation as excellent and somewhat aggressive parents. They have no fear even of humans when guarding their fry! 

Red Fin Convict

A. sp. “red fin convicts” are not so common, but are a great find and, in spite of their common name, are only distantly related to their more common convict cousins. With a deep blood-red dorsal and a dark olive-brownish body with darker brown stripes, they stand out from across the room. 
They are a smaller species, rarely topping out at more than 3 inches (7.5 cm). Unlike A. nigrofasciata, they are somewhat peaceful, and will even spawn in a community tank without causing havoc. 

T-Bar Cichlid (A. sajica)

Amatitlania sajica 2 (1)

The T-bar cichlid (A. sajica) can reach up to 5 inches (13 cm), but 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) is much more common. Their common name highlights their most outstanding feature, a stripe and bar pattern that looks like the letter “T” that is often present on their flanks. There is also a gold form in the hobby that can be quite stunning. 
A. sajica will spawn in colonies of several pairs in a tank 40 gallons (150 liters) or larger. Usually the dominant female winds up guarding all of the fry in the tank, even if she hasn’t recently spawned herself. 

A. siquia

Amatitlania siquia 1 (1)

A. siquia doesn’t yet have a common name, though I might humbly suggest “the Mike Tyson cichlid” in keeping with the Jack Dempsey name from decades ago. They are pretty aggressive when spawning, and once they reach maturity, only one pair can be successfully kept in a tank, even a fairly large one in the neighborhood of 125 gallons (475 liters).
While A. siquia can reach 5 inches (13 cm), somewhere in the 3- to 4-inch (7.5- to 10-cm) range is more common. They are fantastic parents, often caring for their fry until they reach nearly an inch in size. 

A. sp. Honduran Red Point

Honduran red points are far and away my favorite cichlid of all time. I’ve had a colony going in a 75-gallon (285-liter) tank for over 20 years that draws comments from even non-hobbyists who visit my fishroom. They have a unique smoky blue coloration that I’ve never seen in another fish. 
While they have a somewhat reddish tinge in the dorsal and anal fin, it doesn’t really stand out as much as the common name would suggest. I would have called them “the Honduran dusky blue cichlid.” They are peaceful, and only grow to about 3 inches (7.5 cm) or just a bit larger. 

A. nanolutea

A. nanolutea is sometimes called the yellow convict, though most hobbyists don’t use this common name. As you can guess from the species name (nano = small; lutea = yellow/saffron), it is small and yellow. The yellow body sports several broken black bands, reminiscent of a bee.
A. nanolutea is one of the smallest Central American cichlids, reaching just 3 inches (7.5 cm). While they are peaceful when not spawning, when guarding a female with fry, the male will even go after your hand if you’re working in the tank. 

Cryptoheros chetumalensis

Cryptoheros chetumalensis doesn’t yet have a common name, though “rainbow convict” might not be a bad suggestion. They are beautiful and colorful, showing reds, blues, and yellows along with black banding on their flanks, and they have bright blue eyes.
They are not aggressive and do well in groups of six to eight adults in a 40-gallon (150-liter) breeder-style or larger tank. Rarely growing to 4 inches (10 cm), C. chetumalensis is another colony dweller, but usually a single female winds up stealing and raising the fry from all females in the colony.

Cutter’s Blue-Eye Cichlid (C. cutteri)

C. cutteri, Cutter’s blue-eye cichlid, is a very attractively patterned smaller species with bright blue eyes and a bright blue splash on their flanks. The literature claims they can grow to 5 inches (13 cm), though specimens over 4 inches (10 cm) are rare. Most spawning males are around 3 inches (7.5 cm) or just a bit more, with females about an inch (2.5 cm) smaller. Once a pair forms, it’s best to remove all the other fish from the tank, or they will do it for you. 

The Topaz Cichlid (C. myrnae)

C. myrnae, the topaz cichlid, is another attractive dwarf species. Generally, they also top out at about 4 inches (10 cm), though again, smaller is normal in aquaria. In a larger tank with a 4-foot (120-cm) or longer footprint, multiple pairs can be kept and will even spawn at the same time.
The females are fantastic mothers, and here again the dominant female will usually wind up with all of the fry. In the wild this species’ mothering instinct is so strong that they are even reputed to care for the fry of other species!

Seven-Stripe Cichlid (A. septemfasciata)

A. septemfasciata, the seven-stripe cichlid, is the largest of the smaller Central American cichlids, sometimes topping out at 6 inches (15 cm) in the wild. As their name implies, their grayish blue bodies are marked with seven black stripes.
Once a pair forms, you have to remove any conspecifics or the pair will do it for you, even in a large tank. Other cichlid species are fairly well tolerated though, and upper-water fishes like mollies, rainbows, and larger danios are completely ignored. 

Blue-Eye Cichlid (C. spilurus)

Cryptoheros spilurus 2 (1)

The blue-eye cichlid (C. spilurus) is a smaller species that rarely reaches 4 inches (10 cm). Large, older males sometimes develop a slight hump on their head, though this doesn’t always develop. If no cave is available, they will spawn on the side of a rock, the glass in a hidden corner, or some other out-of-the-way spot in the tank. A feral population that has become established in Hawaii is a reminder that hobbyists should never release unwanted fish into natural bodies of water. 

Rainbow Cichlid (Herotilapia multispinosa)

Herotilapia multispinosa, the rainbow cichlid, sports an amazing kaleidoscope of colors, is peaceful in behavior, and has excellent parenting skills. This is one of the few types of dwarf cichlids from Central America that can be recommended for a mixed-species community tank of smaller fishes. I have had this 3- to 4-inch (7.5- to 10-cm) species successfully spawn and raise a family in a 30-gallon (110-liter) community tank with cories, tetras, barbs, and gouramis without casualties.

Aquarium Care

The previous information about their wild habitats should give hobbyists the basics for their care, which is pretty similar for all of the species that we’ve discussed. Fortunately, most folks have tap water that is at least slightly hard and alkaline, with a pH over 7.0. This makes it easy to do frequent, large water changes with a gravel vac. All the hobbyist has to do is get the temperature close to that of the tank and make sure to treat the replacement water for chlorine or chloramines. 
A large power or canister filter and a sponge filter will provide good circulation along with chemical, biological, and mechanical filtration, exactly what these fish need. A heater set in the 76° to 78°F range (about 25°C) will maintain the temperature just about perfect for them. 
Lighting can be provided by any source, though I personally feel that lights with color temperatures of around 5000 to 6000 K bring out their colors best. There is no need to worry about plants. Any rooted plants added to the tank will most likely be dug up around spawning time. Epiphytic plants, however, like Anubias spp., Bolbitis spp., and Java ferns (various varieties of Microsorum pteropus) are perfect, as they can be attached to driftwood or rocks and will be pretty much ignored, though some individual fish may attempt to redecorate and tear up even these hardy plants in the process. 
A 36-inch-long (90-cm) tank or larger is the minimum size that should be recommended for a small, single-species group of young fish. Breeder-style tanks, which are low and wide, are perfect, as they provide room to move and plenty of floor space for territorial boundaries. A substrate of fine sand or gravel, scattered with several small- to medium-sized cobbles and maybe a larger piece of driftwood, completes the look. 

Breeding and Fry Care

Most hobbyists add a couple of clean, new clay flowerpots as potential spawning sites for their dwarf Central American cichlids. Lay the pots on their side and set them so the openings are facing away from each other, then add some larger décor items to break potential lines of sight between pots even further. 
With a setup like this, I have even had two pairs successfully spawn and raise their fry in the same tank at the same time. In fact, I have been maintaining a colony of Honduran red points (Amatitlania sp.) for nearly eight generations over the past 20 years. For most of that time, they have shared this tank with a colony of Mayan swordtails (Xiphophorus mayae). So not all of the rumors you read about the brutish Central American cichlids are true. 
Feeding is easy. They will literally eat any commercial food—flakes, pellets, frozen, or freeze-dried, and there are some excellent commercial cichlid pellets on the market that can serve as a staple diet. It is a good idea to mix it up occasionally and add things like frozen brine shrimp, frozen or freeze-dried Mysis shrimp, frozen bloodworms, and an occasional treat of live foods like blackworms or shrimp. I usually add live foods for a week or so when I’m trying to get a pair ready to spawn; that and a good water change usually do the trick.

Most Central American dwarf cichlid types form pairs that last through one spawning season in the wild. They test each other’s compatibility by lip-locking and wrestling. Usually there is no real damage done, but sometimes jaws can be broken during the lip-locking. In our aquaria, they may form a pair that can last for the rest of their lives and spawn several times together. Others may only spawn once and never again.

It is a good idea to start off with a half-dozen or more juveniles and let them grow up and pair off in the same tank. In the wild, other fish will be driven off by the newly formed pair. In aquaria, it is a good idea to remove the non-paired fish once a pair forms. If they can’t be driven off, they might be seriously injured or even killed by the newly formed pair. 

Once a pair has formed, they will choose a spawning site, most likely in one of the flower pots. Most Central American dwarf cichlid types are cave spawners. In lieu of caves, they will choose a protected sheltered area that has as much cover as possible. 

The pair assumes a spawning coloration that is usually a pattern of very dark on very light. They look so different from normal coloration that it would be easy to mistake them for a different species entirely. Once a spawning site is chosen, the pair cleans the site meticulously. Once she is satisfied, the female begins laying a row of 20 or so eggs, and the male follows along and fertilizes them. This will be repeated until 200 or so eggs are laid. 

The female then moves over the eggs and begins fanning them to keep them clean. The male will take up a protective stance nearby. During this time, the pair rarely eats, so it’s best not to feed them for a few days. The female guards the eggs fiercely and will remove any infertile eggs. Usually the fry hatch in a few days, and the mother carefully takes them up in her mouth and moves them to a nearby pit previously dug in the substrate, where she will hover over them. 

The little fry, called wrigglers at this point, will spend four or five days finishing development and beginning to learn to swim. As they become more adventurous and move away from the pit, mom and sometimes dad will catch them in their mouth and spit them back into the middle of the pit. Finally, when the fry are free-swimming, the parents will lead the ball of fry around the tank to feed. 

The parents do most of the work raising the fry, and most pairs are excellent parents. Some, like A. nigrofasciata, are famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for their parenting skill, which is why the convict is an excellent first species to work with. 

The parents even feed the fry. They get down into the substrate and give a few hard shrugs or shakes that stir up detritus and all the little critters that are living there. The young dart in and start picking at the food before it swirls off—or before other fish take advantage of the free meal and dart in to grab choice morsels. 

In addition to this stirring behavior providing the young with food, it is a good idea to feed them once or twice a day with newly hatched brine shrimp, microworms, and finely ground flake food or a special micro-pelletized food made just for fry. For the first several days, I actually use a turkey baster to squirt food right into the middle of the ball of fry. By the end of the first week, I just add it to the tank, as they are usually all over the place. 

After about three or four weeks it will be time to move the fry to a grow-out tank. The easiest way to do this is to wait until they have bedded down for the night; take a wide siphon hose and gently suck up as many of them as possible, leaving just a few with the parents. If you don’t leave at least a few in there, the parents may start to squabble over their missing offspring, fight, and possibly kill one another. If there are still a few fry left, they will continue parental care until it is time to spawn again. 

The fry left with the parents seem to grow more quickly than those moved to a grow-out tank, but the reason for using a separate tank is that there is no danger of them being eaten if the parents decide to spawn again. I’ve had a few juveniles left in the tank with the adults that have been tolerated even after a spawn, but I wouldn’t count on this always happening. 

Sometimes new parents will eat their first few spawns, even if everything seems okay. It usually happens overnight, so a good trick is to add a single small, tiny LED nightlight over the tank so there is a little “moonlight” for the female to see. That might keep her from getting spooked at night and eating the fry. That’s just my guess as to why this works. It could be for another reason, too, but it does work. By the time they are about eight weeks old, they will be a half-inch (1.5 cm) or larger in size and should be ready for new homes. 

Fun and Fascinating Fish

In spite of their reputation as being a bit gruff, most types of dwarf cichlids from Central America will make excellent aquarium residents, provided you don’t expect them to live with your school of peaceful tetras. They can provide many years of enjoyment and fascination for any hobbyist, with a family life and group behavior everyone in the family will enjoy sharing. If you’ve never tried one before, maybe it’s time to set up a tank just for them. 
The only warning I feel I must give is that you may find yourself some 30 years from now still keeping at least one or two species. They’re just that cool!