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Central American Cichlids

By Neale Monks

Central American cichlids are adaptable, often quite aggressive fish that require moderately hard and alkaline water conditions. They are among the most popular cichlids in the hobby thanks to their bright colours and general hardiness, but the large size of some species and their sometimes violent behaviour means that few are suitable for the average community tank.


Limestone dominates much of the geology of Central American, and consequently the rivers and lakes tend to be hard and alkaline. Volcanic crater lakes are a distinctive feature of the Central American aquatic environment, characterised by their rocky banks and great depth. Lake Nicaragua is a particularly famous example, and besides being home to a variety of cichlids, bull sharks regularly swim into the lake from the Pacific Ocean via the 120-mile San Juan River.

“The Firemouth cichlid Thorichthys meeki is a native to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.”

Some Central American cichlids come from fast-flowing streams and rivers. These are known as rheophilic species and in captivity are particularly sensitive to poor quality water and low oxygen concentrations. As well as freshwater habitats, many Central American cichlids are found in brackish water environments, and a few are even found in the sea, albeit close to the shore in mangroves, lagoons and bays.
Central American cichlids occupy a variety of niches, ranging in size from small species that fed on insect larvae through to very large predators sitting at the top of the food chain. One of the biggest cichlids known to science is from Central America, the 70 cm (27.5 inches) fish-eating cichlid Parachromis dovii. Big specimens can weigh as much as 6.8 kg (about 15 lb). It is one of a variety of big, carnivorous cichlids known in Central America as guapote, a word that can be translated as ‘most handsome’.

Water chemistry

If you live in a hard water area, the chances are your tap water will be adequate for keeping these fish. Central American cichlids are adaptable and do well across a range of water chemistry values, though as ever in fishkeeping, it is important to maintain pH and hardness stability between water changes. In general, pH 7-8 and a hardness of 10 degrees dH or more will suit these fish well.
In soft water areas some hardening of the water will be necessary. One approach is to place calcareous media (such as crushed coral) in one of the compartments inside a canister filter. As the water flows past this media it will dissolve some of the calcium carbonate, resulting in harder, more alkaline water. Because filters get dirty over time, any such media will gradually lose its buffering capacity as it gets covered with dirt and slime. To prevent problems, take care to clean any calcareous media under a hot tap at least once a month, or sooner if you find the pH dropping.

“Electric Blue Jack Dempsey cichlids are typical of Central Americans in preferred moderately hard, alkaline water conditions.”

An alternative approach is to add minerals to each bucket of new water. You can use commercially available cichlid salts of the type produced for Malawian and Tanganyikan cichlids, but you likely won’t need to use the full dose. A half dose should be adequate, though check the pH and hardness with your test kits and adjust as required. If you want to make your own mineral salts, then add 1 teaspoon baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), 1 tablespoon Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), and 1 teaspoon marine salt mix (sodium chloride and various trace elements) per 10 gallons (40 litres) of water. Again, check the pH and hardness and adjust as necessary.


Some Central American cichlids inhabit brackish water habitats and could be kept in a brackish water system. One benefit of keeping these fish in brackish water conditions is that the marine salt mix will automatically adjust pH and hardness to appropriate levels.
Examples of species found in slightly brackish water include Amphilophus hogaboomorum, Herichthys carpintis, Herichthys pearsei, Parachromis friedrichsthalii, Parachromis motaguensis, Rocio octofasciata and Vieja synspila. These will do well at specific gravity levels up to around SG 1.005. A few species are able to live and breed in fully marine conditions. These include Cichlasoma urophthalmus, Nandopsis haitiensis, Nandopsis tetracanthus and Vieja maculicauda.

None of these fish needs brackish water conditions to do well, and all could be kept in a plain freshwater aquarium without problems.

Water temperature

For most species the usual 25 degrees C (77 degrees F) will suffice. Higher temperatures are sometimes advocated by hobbyists, but the only real benefit of this is to increase the frequency with which these cichlids spawn. Unless you are farming these fish on a massive scale, there’s no particular reason to have your fish spawning every 3-4 weeks!


Gut contents of wild fish tend to show a mix of organic detritus, algae, plant material, benthic invertebrates and sometimes small fish. The ratios vary from species to species, but it is obvious that these fish naturally have a varied diet. Under aquarium conditions most specimens tend to be highly adaptable, with things like cichlids pellets, tinned/cooked peas, and frozen invertebrates such as bloodworms all being readily consumed.

Vitamin deficiency is at least one factor behind the dreaded Hexamita infections that cause Hole-in-the-Head disease, and with the omnivorous and herbivorous species especially, it is important to provide them with a regular supply of green foods including Spirulina flake, tinned peas, spinach, blanched curly lettuce, sushi nori, and even cheap aquatic plants (Elodea is ideal).

The predatory species will happily take small fish, but a live fish diet cannot be recommended. Goldfish and rosy-red minnows in particular are unhealthy because of their high fat and thiaminase content, and the cheap fish sold in pet stores are riddled with parasites and pathogenic bacteria. It isn’t even necessary to give these fish a live food diet anyway, as they will just as readily take chunky seafood, lancefish and cichlid pellets.

Decorating the tank

Since most Central American cichlids come from shady habitats with lots of cover, they appreciate a tank that isn’t too brightly lit. Most species like to dig, so live plants, except perhaps floating species, aren’t of much use. Instead concentrate on large plastic plants, rocks, and pieces of artificial or real bogwood. Because large amounts of bogwood can acidify the aquarium over time, if you decide to use a lot of this material, monitor pH carefully and do not neglect water changes!

The sand-sifting species will appreciate a fine substrate. River sand is ideal, but otherwise a mix of four parts smooth silica sand to one part coral sand will produce a reasonable facsimile.  Because these cichlids like subdued light and shady environments, they don’t appreciate brightly coloured gravels.

Thorichthys ellioti is adapted to sifting food particles from sand, much like the South American eartheaters”

Because these fish dig a lot, take care that their activity cannot undermine your arrangement of rocks. Make sure all rocks are securely balanced, and if necessary use a gravel tidy to secure a cushioning layer of gravel at the bottom of the tank. This will prevent any rocks slipping and cracking the glass.

Most of these fish spawn in caves, or at least dig a pit somewhere sheltered. In many cases a flowerpot on its side makes an ideal nesting site.

Social behaviour

All Central American cichlids are territorial, and often aggressively so when spawning. Very few make good community fish. The mildest species are the Firemouth cichlid Thorichthys meeki and the Rainbow cichlid Archocentrus multispinosus, and to lesser degrees the T-bar cichlid Cryptoheros sajica and the Jade-eye cichlid Cryptoheros spilurus.

Most of the other Central Americans are sufficiently aggressive that they are best kept either in matched pairs in their own tanks or as singletons in large communities alongside suitably robust cichlids. Unless you want to breed these cichlids, don’t bother keeping pairs or groups. Most species display a high degree of intraspecific aggression, and even within pairs, the males can sometimes be extremely nasty towards unresponsive females, even killing them.

Central American cichlids can be kept with schooling dither fish, at least in the case of the less aggressive, non-piscivorous species. Large, fast-moving tetras from Central America would be particularly appropriate, for example the Mexican tetra Astyanax mexicanus, but you could equally easily used Australian rainbowfish or some of the larger Asian barbs.

Catfish are often kept with Central American cichlids. Robust members of the Loricariidae such as Hypostomus, Pterygoplichthys and Panaque are particularly useful. Since they hide most of the time, they generally avoid serious trouble.

“In suitably large aquaria, gar mix quite well with Central American cichlids, though they will view the smaller species as food”

Tank size

Central American cichlids need a lot of space. Tanks less than 110 litres (30 gallons) in size are best reserved for singletons or breeding pairs. Collections of the smaller, milder species could be maintained in tanks 200 litres (55 gallons) in size, but for best results you should aim for a tank 375-750 litres (100-200 gallons) in size. This will provide your fish with plenty of space, and make it easier to keep the bigger and more aggressive species without them killing each other.


The taxonomy of Central American cichlids is a nightmare! Until fairly recently, most species were lumped in the one genus Cichlasoma, a name you’ll see widely used in many older aquarium books. Since that times there has been much sorting and segregation as species have been moved into more narrowly defined genera based on evolutionary relationships.

A good example is the Convict cichlid. For long known as Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum, this species has subsequently been called Heros nigrofasciatus, Cryptoheros nigrofasciatus and Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, and is currently referred to as Amatitlania nigrofasciata.

Even more dramatically, where once the Convict was recognised as a single morphologically variable species, there are now no fewer than four different Convict cichlid species! These is the standard issue Convict Amatitlania nigrofasciata from the northern part of Central America, and then three additional species native to the southern part of the area, Amatitlania coatepeque, Amatitlania kanna, and Amatitlania siquia. Telling these four species apart isn’t easy, and the farmed stock sold in most aquarium shops are likely to be hybrids anyway. Only exceptionally do pure-bred single-species Convicts get offered for sale, as in the case of the Honduran Red Point
Convict, a species believed to be Amatitlania siquia.

Closely related Central American species frequently hybridise. Just as with Malawian cichlids, it makes sense to keep just one genus per tank, i.e., one Amphilophus species, one Nandopsis species, one Parachromis species, and so on. Any fry produced in your tank will be much less likely to be hybrids, and this will make it easier to sell on any surplus fish.

Amatitlania - Convict cichlids

The standard Convict cichlid of the hobby is Amatitlania nigrofasciata. Various colour morphs are available, including an albino form. Wild-type fish are basically grey with black vertical bands. Females also have bright gold markings on the belly and on the dorsal and anal fins. The species is also sexually dimorphic in terms of size, with females being smaller at up to 10 cm (4 inches) noticeably smaller than the males, who get up to about 12.5 cm (5 inches) in length.

Convicts are pugnacious, and noted for their ability to coexist successfully alongside much larger fish. They tend to bully the mild Central American cichlids, but in sufficiently large aquaria will work well with the more territorial, small and medium-sized species. They are omnivores and consume both meaty and green foods.

“The colourful and relatively peaceful Convict traded as the Honduras Red Spot is a likely Amatitlania siquia

The Honduran Red Point Convict, probably Amatitlania siquia, is similar to the standard Convict but is smaller and has distinctive red and green colouration in the fins. Maintenance is much like the standard Convict, but this species appears to be somewhat less aggressive.

Amphilophus - Red Devil and Midas cichlids

There are over twenty species described for this genus, though only two are routinely traded. These are the Midas cichlid Amphilophus citrinellus and the Red Devil Amphilophus labiatus. Both species are predominantly greenish-grey to brown in the wild, but aquarium fish are almost exclusively of the xanthomorphic forms that exhibit strong yellow, orange or red colouration.

Distinguishing between the two species isn’t necessarily easy, although in theory Amphilophus labiatus should have thicker lips and a smaller nuchal (on males) than Amphilophus citrinellus. Unfortunately for the aquarist, Amphilophus labiatus specimens rarely develop their thick lips in captivity, and the relative proportions of the nuchal hump will only be apparent on old males and is obviously of no use for sexing females! In terms of colour, Amphilophus labiatus tends to have a more intense red-orange colour, whereas Amphilophus citrinellus are usually orange to yellow-white instead.

Both species are big, getting to at least 20 cm (8 inches) in captivity. They are aggressive, and should only be combined with the most robust cichlids and catfish. They are omnivores that will consume both plant and animal foods. Snails are a particularly important part of their diet in the wild.

Archocentrus - Mild Mannered Rainbows

At least three species belong to this genus, but only one species, the Rainbow cichlid Archocentrus multispinosus, is commonly traded. It works well in community tanks, and is probably the best Central American cichlids for beginners. As its name suggests, this species varies its colours with its mood. The body is generally yellow to brick red, but becomes very dark, almost black, when spawning.
Archocentrus are omnivores, and offerings of both crustaceans and green foods will help them develop their best colours.

Cichlasoma - Salvinii and Mojarra cichlids

Ichthyologists continue to debate what does and doesn’t belong in the genus Cichlasoma, with almost forty species remaining in a genus that spans the rivers and lakes of both Central and South America. Consequently it is difficult to make any useful generalisations except to say that these fish tend to be medium-sized omnivores and are usually pretty aggressive. Sexual dimorphism tends to be slight, and the only reliable way to sex these fish is to examine the genital papillae. Otherwise, you can rear juveniles in groups and allow them to pair off naturally.

The two species most commonly traded are the Salvinii and the Mojarra. The Salvinii cichlid Cichlasoma salvini is of moderate size, getting to about 15 cm (6 inches) in length under aquarium conditions, males being a little bigger than females. Both sexes can be brilliantly coloured, especially when spawning. The body is lemon yellow and bears two black bands on the upper part of the flank, each black band lined with blue scales. The black bands are most obvious during spawning, and may fade away completely at other times. An orange-red patch spans the lower flank between the pelvic fins and the tail fin; this is most obvious on the females, and may be absent from males altogether. Colours vary dramatically with mood, and the youngsters usually seen on sale are not particularly eye-catching. There is some variation in the wild as well, with fish from different places having slightly different colours. Cichlasoma salvini is an aggressive, territorial species also noted for being an accomplished piscivore, though its usual diet in the wild is mainly plant material and benthic invertebrates of various types. It tends to avoid interacting with larger cichlid species, and ignores schooling midwater fish too large to eat.

“Like most Central American cichlids, Cichlasoma salvinii are omnivorous in the wild, feeding primarily on invertebrates and plant material”

The Mojarra or Mayan cichlid Cichlasoma urophthalmus is a big species at up to 40 cm (16 inches) in length. It is one of the species most strongly associated with brackish water conditions, and wild fish show a distinct preference for coastal lagoons. Under aquarium conditions it does not need to be kept in brackish water. It is aggressive, and should be kept alone or with equally robust species, though care should be taken to avoid species too similar in shape or colouration, as such fish will tend to bring out its worst behaviour. Its sheer size demands a massive aquarium: singletons won’t tolerant other cichlids in anything under 375 litres (100 gallons) and breeding pairs will need a tank twice that size if you want to avoid carnage!

The Mojarra is often confused with a South American cichlid Cichlasoma festae. When the two are compared, Cichlasoma festae has a smaller eyespot on the tail fin but more intense red colouration.

Herichthys - Texas cichlids

There are at least ten species in the genus Herichthys but only two are normally traded. Historically there has been much confusion between these two species, Herichthys carpintis and Herichthys cyanoguttatus, with both fish being known as Texas cichlids. In fact only Herichthys cyanoguttatus is naturally found in Texas, specifically the Rio Grande, as well as Mexico.

Telling the two species apart is difficult, but in general Herichthys cyanoguttatus is covered with much smaller blue-white spots than Herichthys carpintis. Body colour in both cases can vary dramatically with mood, though it is typically some shade of blue, often with dark vertical bands.

are omnivores that consume some plant matter alongside small crustaceans, worms and insects. They are reasonably well behaved fish in communities alongside other robust cichlids, but do become extremely aggressive when spawning.

Hypsophrys - Nicaragua cichlids and the Poor Man’s Tropheus

species are mostly rheophilic fish, meaning that it is adapted to fast-flowing shallow water habitats. Consequently they appreciates water with a decent water current and plenty of oxygen.

Hypsophrys nicaraguensis
is a relatively big species, with males reaching as much as 25 cm (10 inches) in the wild, though under 20 cm (8 inches) is more typical under aquarium conditions. Females are a bit smaller. Despite their size, these are comparatively peaceful fish. They would do well alongside midwater fish adapted to a similar habitat, for example large Danio or Barilius species. Quality specimens have amazing colours, metallic red and yellow around the belly blending to blue-green on the flanks, with prominent black spots and banding on the flanks. The eye is bright gold, and the fins are marked with gold, red, black and turquoise blue. Hypsophrys nicaraguensis is an omnivore with a taste for aquatic plants.

Hypsophrys nematopus
is an odd little cichlid that looks for all the world like an East African Tropheus of some kind! At one point known as Neetroplus nematopus, many aquarists still refer to them as Neets. Basic care is much like Hypsophrys nicaraguensis in terms of water conditions and diet, but they are much smaller, at about 12 cm (4 inches) or so in length, the males a bit bigger than the females. Despite being fairly small herbivores, these fish are remarkably aggressive, and are best kept in their own tank. In community systems they tend to either terrorise fish of similar size, or else end up getting bullied (or eaten) by any substantially larger cichlids.

Nandopsis - Biajaca

While quite a few species have been included in this genus at one time or another, currently only three species are placed here, and none of them are much traded as aquarium fish. The Cuban cichlid Nandopsis tetracanthus is sometimes seen, and it is smart-looking fish in its way, with bright silver-gold scales on a dark blue-black body It is territorial but not especially aggressive, so could be considered for a robust community of medium-sized Central American cichlids and catfish.

- Guapote cichlids

The guapote cichlids are the large, carnivorous species that tend to be fairly to very aggressive. While often spectacular fish, their size and temperament excludes them from all but the biggest aquaria. Oddly enough they tend to tolerate dissimilar fish (such as Amphilophus species) rather well, provided they have space, but are invariably hostile towards one another or any other Parachromis species kept with them. It probably goes without saying that mated pairs will dominate any tank, so unless you have a gigantic aquarium, these fish are best kept as singletons.

Several species are traded, including Parachromis dovii, Parachromis friedrichsthalii and the popular Jaguar cichlid Parachromis managuensis. At more than 30 cm (12 inches) in length Parachromis managuensis is a definite tank-buster, but it is a beautiful fish with a gorgeous pattern of black spots against a silver or gold body. It is carnivorous, but accepts pellets without complaint, though it enjoys earthworms, river shrimps and chopped seafood, and offerings of small frozen fish such as lancefish are welcomed as well.

- Bay Snook

A single species is included in this genus, and at up to 50 cm (20 inches) in length it really has no value as an aquarium fish, despite the fact it isn’t especially aggressive. It is an out-and-out predator with a huge mouth, and adult fish at least feed primarily on smaller fish, including other cichlids.

- Jack Dempseys

At least two types of Rocio are on sale, the standard dark blue Jack Dempsey Rocio octofasciata and the brilliant Electric Blue Dempsey that is said to be particular variety of Rocio octofasciata bred in captivity. Some aquarists believe it to be a hybrid, but there’s little hard evidence to support that theory. In any case, both fish are maintained in the same way.

“There’s some debate over the origins of the Electric Blue Jack Dempsey, though it is currently assumed to be a selected form of Rocio octofasciata

These are medium-sized cichlids at up to 20 cm (8 inches) in length though often rather less. They are omnivores, with wild fish consuming both plants and animal foods, particularly algae and insect larvae. They are notoriously aggressive at breeding time, but by the standards of Central American cichlids generally, not especially aggressive the rest of the time. They work well in communities of robust cichlids, given sufficient space and hiding places.

Thorichthys - Firemouth cichlids

The eight species included in this genus are of moderate size, typically around 15 cm (6 inches) or so and noted for their rather specialised mouthparts. They are earth-sifters that feed extensively on algae and invertebrates sifted out from the sediment. While pretty adaptable in captivity, their delicate jaws put them at a disadvantage when kept with more aggressive cichlids: should they get caught up in a fight, their jaws are easily dislocated. Even cichlids as small as Convicts are liable to damage them. So these cichlids are best kept on their own or in a suitably configured community with schooling midwater fish such as Mexican tetras or swordtails.

By far the most commonly traded species is Thorichthys meeki, generally known as the Firemouth on account of its bright red throat. Instead of fighting in the normal way, these cichlids threaten one another by inflating their throats, exposing more of the red colouration and flaring the blue eyespots on their gill covers. Essentially a gentle giant when given space and kept away from other benthic cichlids, it does become much more aggressive when spawning, and doesn’t quite make the grade as a standard community fish. But as a Central American cichlid from the beginner, this species has much to recommend it, not least of all its wide availability and overall hardiness.

Thorichthys ellioti isn’t widely traded, but it makes an interesting alternative to the standard Firemouth cichlid”

Occasionally you will see other species on sale, such as Thorichthys ellioti. Apart from differences in colouration, these are essentially similar to the Firemouth in terms of care. Thorichthys ellioti in particular is very vividly coloured with bright blue spots over its body.

Neotropical Cichlids on WWM

Related Articles: Neotropical Cichlids, African Cichlids, Dwarf South American Cichlids, Cichlid Fishes in General

Related FAQs: Neotropical Cichlids 1, Neotropical Cichlids 2, Neotropical Cichlids 3, Neotropical Cichlid Identification, Neotropical Cichlid Behavior, Neotropical Cichlid Compatibility, Neotropical Cichlid Selection, Neotropical Cichlid Systems, Neotropical Cichlid Feeding, Neotropical Cichlid Disease, Neotropical Cichlid Reproduction, Convicts, Oscars, Firemouths, Texas Cichlids, Severums, Triangle Cichlids, & Cichlids of the World, Cichlid Systems, Cichlid Identification, Cichlid Behavior, Cichlid Compatibility, Cichlid Selection, Cichlid Feeding, Cichlid DiseaseCichlid Reproduction,




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