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The Apistogramma are colorful freshwater dwarf cichlids originally from South America but can be found in aquarium shops worldwide.
There are about 70 documented species, but it’s believed there are still many more just waiting to be discovered, making this fish one of the most exciting to keep and follow.
Their vibrant colors can range from bright yellows to dazzling blues, and some can even have multiple color variants, which can be dramatically different from other genus.
Due to their vibrant colors and range of different species, they’re excellent candidates for aquariums and also easy enough to keep even for a beginner and in tanks as small as 20 gallons.
And in this article, we’ll go over everything you’ll need to know to keep, raise, and even breed these beauties successfully.
- Apistogramma genus normally reach about 3 inches in size making them great for a 20 gallon freshwater aquarium
- They come in a plethora of colors and have over 100 sub-species to choose from
- They are mostly bottom-dwelling fish that do great with upper column schooling fish like tetras and pencil fish
- Many variants are easy enough to keep even for beginner aquarist
An Overview of the Species
|Common Names||Dwarf Cichlid|
|Origin||Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia|
|Lifespan||5 to 10 years|
|Minimum Tank Size||20 gallons|
|Temperature Range||72 – 86° F|
|Water Hardness||2 – 15 dH|
|pH Range||6.0 – 7.0|
|Difficulty to Breed||Varies|
|OK, for Planted Tanks?||Yes|
One of the appeals of keeping Apistogramma is all of the variations of colors that can be found in these dwarf cichlids. Every color from varying shades of reds, blues, and even golds can be found, making them truly a joy to keep and admire.
Most Apistogramma also have the typical cichlid profile of being slim and long with a thick black stripe that runs the entire body length to their tail fins.
Males tend to always be the most beautiful of the Apistogramma species, while females tend to have more muted color palettes. There are a few female varieties that buck this trend, but overall it’s the males that stand out.
Some females do become much more vibrant during the breeding season, demonstrating that color may still play a role in mating for the males as well as the females. But there’s not much scientific evidence proving this theory yet.
Types of Apistogramma Species
Dwarf Cockatoo Cichlids (Apistogramma Cacatuoides) are one of the most commonly kept Apistogramma due to the ease they can be bred in captivity and the ‘Cockatoo’ appearance of their prominent dorsal fins.
On males, apistogramma cacatuoides dorsal fin is almost as large as their entire body and is often speckled with bright red dots with streaks of yellow and black underneath. Apistogramma cacatuoides bodies are a muted yellow and sport a horizontal black line down the length of their body from head to tail.
The females are much less vibrant than the males, as is common with cichlids. She, too, has a thick black stripe that goes from head to tail, but her body is more silver, and her fins are much smaller and don’t include the ‘cockatoo cichlid’ appearance that male apistogramma cacatuoides do.
They are easy to care for and breed and make great additions to any freshwater tank.
Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlids are more territorial and originate in Brazil, but their variety of colors and small size still make them a favorite among aquarists everywhere.
The males look more like the normal cichlid as far as shape, and include a range of color patterns including red, blue, silver, yellow, gold and orange. The most commonly kept Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlid specimens are the yellow finned variant with a thick black stripe running the entire length of its body.
These little fish only reach around three inches which makes them perfect for smaller tanks. They’re also considered community fish which means they can be kept with other types of freshwater life, but just make sure they are the same size or larger as cichlids readily eat smaller fish of any species.
Umbrella Cichlids have an iridescent blue-violet body with yellow tails, fins and faces making them a very uniquely colored apisto species.
Usually a female umbrella cichlid is drab and void of vibrancy both in captivity and in their natural habitat. But the female apistogramma borellii is unique in this as they are just as beautiful to look at as the males are boasting different hues of blue for their bodies with a red face and almost transparent yellow fins (video source).
The Umbrella Cichlid can reach just a tad over three inches with the females being a bit smaller overall.
They prefer densely planted aquariums with many places to hide and can be easily spooked. They can also be territorial and semi aggressive so it’s best to keep one male apistogramma borellii with at least four to seven females in order to keep the peace.
Being apistogramma borellii it’s a good idea not to keep smaller or fragile fish in the same tank set up. They will eat other fish! But fish at least the same size or larger are okay, and being a bit aggressive can be acceptable too.
Red Neck cichlids are known for their bright red and blue facial coloration and originate from the meta river system in Columbia. These rivers are often sandy with little vegetation, something to know when you’re setting up your tank for these.
Red Necks are small and don’t reach three inches full-grown. And the females are even smaller. This makes them easy to keep in a smaller tank of 20 gallons or more. Just be sure to have some places to hide, like a clay pot or two and a few pieces of driftwood.
These are active and playful fish that like some open space to swim around in. They’re generally peaceful and do well with others, but during mating season, you can run into aggressive behavior problems.
So if you do plan to breed Red Necks, it’s best to place the breeding pair in a separate tank during breeding season if you have a community tank. Pencils, tetras and other calm schooling fish are the best sort of tank mates if you want to keep these in a larger set up.
Hongslo’s dwarf cichlids are another variety of Colombian dwarf cichlids that, in the wild, are lightly colored in ‘boring’ tannish and white. But the strain that’s kept in tanks today is a brightly colored red variety that is the result of selective breeding and can only be found in captivity.
The domesticated variety has the common cichlid shaped slim silver body with bright red edgings on the lower half and under their eye. Their face and ‘neck’ are yellow and fins are a transparent silverish purple making them a joy to look at.
These dwarf cichlids are easy to keep and are social and tolerate other species of calm fish in community tanks. They don’t really require any special care and their tanks can be bare sandy gravel with a few pieces of driftwood placed to make a few small cave like structures.
Overall this is a great beginner fish if you want to start keeping dwarf cichlids.
Viejita Rednecks aren’t as common as the other Red Neck cichlids are, but that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful to look at.
Coming in under three inches, these small nano fish are playful and clam and boast bright reds and radiant oranges. And like most cichlids they have a thick black stripe running the entire length of their body.
Another easy fish to both keep and breed, like the Hongslo’s dwarf cichlids, they are a great beginner-friendly cichlid to start with. Fairly hardy, they like a densely planted aquarium with plenty of hiding places.
Apistogramma baenschi are brilliant looking with a metallic sky blue wash covering the tail end of its body while the head half is washed in yellows. Its transparent tail is edged with black then bright red or orange making this baenschi a true stand out.
But what really separates them is the enormous fin extensions on their dorsal fin rays that make them look similar to a salt water Rooster Fish. Between their color patterns and long fin extensions, these are one of the most beautiful of the dwarf cichlids.
They come from Peru and only grow to under three inches. They’re also calm and do well in heavily planted tanks that host other non-cichlid calm schooling fish like tetras or rasboras.
One of the hardier species of the genus, Apistogramma Elizabethae is one of the rarest dwarf cichlids in the aquarium trade and hails from rivers in Brazil.
These simply colored fish are a blueish gray with more vibrant blues at the edges of it transparent fins separated by a thick black stripe that runs halfway through its entire length. The underpart is both orange starting at the head that slowly progresses to a bright yellow. Small flecks of an iridescent blue can also been seen in the face of the males.
These social nano fish reach lengths of two inches and can be kept with other non-cichlids peacefully. But they do require a densely planted tank with rocks and driftwood and low lighting to really thrive.
Although rare, they are a good for beginners and do well under most circumstances. Single specimens can be kept in aquariums as small as ten gallons, but a twenty gallon tank or larger is required for any more than two.
The Three-Striped Dwarf Cichlid is found in the sandy bottoms of the rivers of Paraguay and only grow to one to one and a half inches long making it one of the smallest dwarf cichlids on our list.
Trifasciata, like the Apistogramma Baenschi I discussed above, slightly resemble a salt water Rooster Fish with their large fin extensions on their dorsal fin rays that traditionally include iridescent blues and oranges making them quite a site to look at.
Their silver looking bodies are topped of with yellow running along the top of its back and the typical thick black stripe running through the center from head to its tail.
As with most cichlids, the females are much less colorful and dramatic other than their vibrant blue fins.
Although these are easy to keep, keep in mind males of this species often become aggressive towards each other, especially during mating. It’s best to keep one male with many females if you’re looking to keep a few of these in your tank.
How Big Do They Get?
Being a ‘Dwarf’ species of cichlids, these little guys pretty much never get to much more than three inches long although there are a very few that can grow as large as six inches making them the largest south american dwarf cichlids.
And some can be as small as two inches when fully grown. This makes them perfect for smaller freshwater aquariums and play a large part in their popularity. It’s also important to note that the males are again, almost always larger than the females. This can help when you’re sexing in order to breed them.
How Long Do They Live?
Most dwarf cichlids live between three to five years in captivity. Their lifespan primarily depends on the quality of the main tank set up and how well the hobbyist can maintain their water.
A few of the reasons Apistogramma has shorter lifespans includes;
· Dirty Water
· Ph too high or low
· Keeping many males in the same tank
· Keeping inappropriate tank mates that stress Apistogramma
· Under or over feeding
· Water temperature range too high or low
These are just a few of the more common mistakes hobbyist make keeping dwarf cichlids. It’s important to remember that your fish are living creatures and should be treated as such.
Take care of them and do some research on where they come from and how they live in their natural habitats. This information will go a long way in understanding proper tank set up and feeding.
Dwarf Cichlids Behavior & Temperament
Surprisingly, most species of Apistogramma are calm, peaceful fish and often make good tank mates, even in community tanks. And although they can be shy, as long as they have a few nooks and crannies to hide when they feel threatened or stressed, they can thrive in most tanks.
The only problem with most cichlids, regardless of size or where they come from, is their aggressive behavior during mating. Some will literally fight each other to the death.
So it’s extremely important to always look to see if your choice needs to have a harem of females per male in order to keep aggression to a minimum.
Most Apistogramma also enjoys schooling. In the wild, they can be found in school sizes of two to ten with one male and many females. So if your tank is large enough, take advantage of this and let them swim around in impressive-looking groups.
Are They Hard to Keep?
Most species of Apistogramma are quite easy to keep and thrive in many types of freshwater fish tanks.
Of course, it’s always best if you can match their natural habitats as closely as possible when it comes to pH levels, water temperature and quality, and their natural surroundings as far as substrates and flora.
But most of these dwarf cichlids are actually resilient and can survive in an array of water conditions. But of course, unfavorable conditions while being able to sustain your fish, most definitely play a role in limiting their lifespan.
But read on to find out exactly what you do need to be doing and how to set up everything so you can have a Apistogramma tank to be proud of.
Your aquarium set up will depend on the species of apistogramma you decide to keep. Some Apistogramma like sandy substrate bottoms to feed off, while other require a lot of live plants and other vegetation, rocks and bits of wood and plant matter like Indian almond leaves. Read through our section above on what each sub-species requires to be happy.
What Size Tank Do They Need?
The saying ‘bigger is better’ is true when it comes to tank sizes. Just think if you were a goldfish stuck in a tiny bowl and not allowed to swim around like fish are supposed to do. How happy would you be?
But of course we can’t all have 300 gallon tanks, nor do you need to for these apistogramma.
The minimum tank size for Apistogramma should be a twenty gallon tank. And this is if you only have one or two to house plus a few tetras or one of the other many species of schooling fish to keep them company.
The one caveat worth noting here is the Apistogramma Elizabethae which doesn’t seem to mind being in smaller shallower tanks, as long as it has room to swim lengthwise.
But otherwise, if you’re new to the hobby and setting up your first tank, start out with a 20 gallon tank.
Water Parameters (Tank Conditions)
Water is the most important factor in any set up and it’s also what you’ll struggle with the entire time you have your aquarium. But since Apistogramma are fresh water fish, it’s not as difficult to get it right as some other set ups are.
Like most aquarium life, Apistogramma need certain water parameters in order to stay healthy and thrive. Deviate from them and you are putting the health of your fish at risk.
Being from South America it isn’t hard to imagine that they need warm water to live. The perfect temperature is somewhere between 72 – 86 Degrees Fahrenheit, and if the tank retains anything less than 60 Degrees for any extended amount of time can easily kill most Apistogramma. This includes the temperature of the water, even new water, that you are adding when doing your water maintenance routine
So always pay attention to your tanks temperature!
And as far as pH goes, try to stay in the 6.0 to 7.0 range for most species. But again, please look at each individual cichlid’s specific requirements to be sure you’re going for the correct pH.
Quick Water Parameter Guide
· Temperature: 72 – 86 Degrees Fahrenheit
· pH: 6.0 – 7.0
· TDS: 100 – 200 PPM
Filtration and Aeration
Filtration has a lot to do with the amount of aquatic life and what else is in the tank and the tank’s water capacity. The more fish you have, the more waste needs to be removed. The same goes for live plants and substrates where microorganisms can end up growing.
For Apistogramma the perfect set up would be to have both a mechanical and biological filter for your tank. Good aquarium filters will have different stages. The mechanical filter will filter large particles of debris and uneaten food. Whereas the biological filter will allow aerobic, nitrifying bacteria to grow that break down waste and other toxic compounds.
If you are on a serious budget and are starting small, a large sponge filter can be used, it’s just not the optimal filter for the job.
Depending on which Apistogramma you have, it’s best to keep your filters running slowly as many of these come from slow moving rivers or the edges of lakes where the water is more still. Replicating their natural water movements is another way to keep your apistogramma happy without really needing to do much.
Most Apistogramma are more comfortable with medium to low light conditions in your tank. For many variants, live plants that grow and offer shade in the tank and deflect direct light are a great addition and can help with tank stability as well.
Try using LED lighting for your freshwater fish aquariums as they offer the best full spectrum lighting and don’t heat up like other types of lighting does. They’re also more energy efficient.
And to make things easier on yourself, use a timer so your live plants get the exact amount of lighting they need. For most situations this is somewhere between 8 to 10 hours.
Aquarium Plants and Decorations
Aquarium plants and decorations are necessary for most Apistogramma aquariums and help keep your pet’s stress levels to a minimum and offer them a relatively stress free life. Most cichlids are actually shy and need hiding spaces when they are frightened or overwhelmed by tank mates.
Clay pots and driftwood make great cover and are easy enough to source and use. Just place a clay pot or two in your tank surrounded by a few small pieces of driftwood and that should be enough ‘cover’.
But don’t forget the live plants! Or think it’s to difficult to grow them, it’s not.
Plants help keep your pH stable and help to naturally improve water quality by truing waste into oxygen. They can also create canopies to fragment direct lighting.
Here are a few great choices when it comes to plants for a cichlid aquarium;
Water sprite is by far the best plant to have in a cichlid tank. This versatile plant can be grown either rooted or you can let it just float creating a natural canvas that helps block direct light.
Java Moss is next on the list as a fantastic plant for cichlids. You only need a small piece to get started and it will slowly grow out from there. Java moss is also a great water filtration plant and adds a lot of ‘naturalness’ to any sort of Apistogramma tank set up.
Java Fern is another plant that is easily available and looks great. Once your plant starts growing you can cut of the rhizomes to make more plants. And this is a hardy plant that fish don’t eat, so it’ll last forever if you take care of them.
When it comes to the substrate, you want to mimic your apistogrammas’ natural environment as much as possible. Most dwarf cichlids live in places that have either mud or sand bottoms and it will depend on which variants you choose to keep to know which to use.
One note, try keeping same species together! You don’t want one variety that prefers sand substrate tanks mixed with ones that require mud and decaying plant matter. Plan your main tank ahead and you’ll have happier fish.
In the wild, dwarf cichlids are mostly from rivers and streams which means they have a constant flow of fresh water to live in. You should do all you can to give them the same clean, fresh water in their tank.
That means have a water changing routine is paramount. Clean water really does make all the difference, and weekly water changes can make all the difference in your fish’s health.
You should be changing around 50 % of your tank water every 3 to 4 days for the absolute best results. You can even go more often if you have the time. The cleaner your water is, the better your aquarium will do.
Vacuuming your tank is another necessity if you have a sandy bottom tank. Debris will accumulate on the floor and can cause havoc when it comes to pH levels and cleanliness.
Once a week is fine for most tanks to be vacuumed. And the cheap hand-squeezable option is good enough for most 20 gallon tanks. Just be aware of plant roots when vacuuming and make sure there are no fry that can be vacuumed up by mistake.
Community Tank Mates
Believe it or not, dwarf cichlids enjoy having other fish around. A few appropriate apistogramma tank mates seems to make them feel calmer and less stressed. When they have the right tanks mates, you’ll notice they’ll come out more often and be more inquisitive about their surrounding and even you.
But what are the best tank mates to keep with dwarf cichlids?
Tetras and pencilfish are great picks for all of the cichlid species we’ve gone over here. They all swim in the upper water column and are not aggressive at all. In addition they’re big enough that your cichlids won’t eat them.
And they look great in school sizes of ten or more. A school of tetras along with one or two cichlids can all be kept together in the same 20 gallon tank or larger with no crowding.
A few more great tanks mates include:
- Neon tetras
- Cardinal tetras
- Lemon tetras
- Small Rasboras
- Pygmy Gouramis
- Pygmy Corydoras
- Otocinclus Catfish
Food and Diet
When it comes to feeding your Apistogramma, remember most are omnivores and require both plant based foods and live or frozen foods like shrimp in order to have a balanced diet.
Luckily it’s pretty easy to feed your them a proper diet. Some commercial fish food and frozen or even dried brine shrimp are enough to keep your fish happy and well fed.
Don’t just feed them once a day, or let them go without food for long periods of time. This will stress out your fish and they’ll start showing signs of sickness.
And try to go the extra mile by adding some live food to the mix as often as possible and not just feeding them flake food. They are semi aggressive and watching them swim around devouring tiny shrimp or glass worms is a lot of fun to watch!
What Foods To Feed them?
Frozen foods: Frozen foods are the second best option as they are still healthier alternatives to dried flakes. And they come packaged so it’s also a convenient source of protein that sinks to the bottom of the tank where your fish are. The best one to get are blood worms which aren’t worms at all, but rather larvae. Small shrimp can also be found frozen, but the blood worms are still preferable over the shrimp. But they’ll do if that’s all you have.
Prepared Foods: These types of food are obviously the easiest to feed your fish with, but aren’t enough on their own. We highly recommend that you use live foods as often as possible. But a few times a week is okay. Instead of the flakes which to much can cause inferior water quality, we prefer using pellets as a prepared food source for our cichlids. Pellet foods hold up better and are just as easily obtainable and convenient as flaked food, but cause less pollution in your community tank. Look for the sinking type for the best results.
Brine Shrimp: The best option and most easily accessible are live shrimp. All pet stores carry these, and they’re cheap and easy to manage. Just buy a bag and drop some into the water and watch your fish go crazy hunting them all down. It’s one of my favorite things to watch!
White Worms: White worms are another easy choice and can be found in most aquarium shops. The great part about these worms is that if you have a little space, you can just raise them yourself. And they multiply quickly, so you’ll always have a supply of healthy live food available all for free.
How Often Do I feed My Fish?
For dwarf cichlids, once in the morning and once at night is recommended. You can also split their food up as far as feeding live foods in the morning and pellet foods at night. Just go easy on the pellet foods, maybe 2 to 3 times a week only.
Breeding Apistogramma or any bonded pair of fish for that matter is a wonder to watch and extremely rewarding experience.
This is definitely something for the more advanced aquarist, but there are many stories of people finding little fry in their tanks without even knowing they had breed apistos or something else.
So with a little knowledge and luck, even the beginner hobbyist can breed many of these types of dwarf cichlid and all without a special breeding tank set up.
Sexing Apistogramma on the whole is petty easy. Most males are much more colorful and larger fish than the females, especially when it comes time to breed. So just by looking at your fish you should be able to tell what’s what.
The problem comes when they are juveniles and you’re looking to buy a breeding bonded pair. Some are extremely hard to tell apart when they’re young and it can take a very experienced hobbyist to know the difference.
So if you’re just starting out and want a juvenile pair, it’s best to consult with someone that really knows what they’re doing.
For breeding you will definitely want to be feeding your pair live foods. Brine shrimp and larvae are best with some frozen blood worms once or twice a week for added fat seem to work very well when breeding.
The Tank Set Up
Your Apistogramma tank set up definitely plays a role in breeding successfully. First, the water quality needs to be as close to perfect as possible. Poor water conditions stress your Apistogramma and lower any chance of successful breeding, so make sure your water pH levels are in align to the type of fish you’re going to be breeding. And some people go as far as setting up a separate breeding tank for same species fish.
Shelter and Cover also play a major role. They are on the whole shy fish, so they need somewhere to hide out when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Plus they need a place to actually lay their eggs and for safety when the eggs hatch. All this particular species needs is a somewhat partially closed in space to lay their eggs in or a separate breeding tank with a bonded pair ready for breeding. A simple clay plant pot can work or some driftwood placed to create small caves or caverns also works.
For the best results as far as survival rates for fry, use a clay flower pot in the breeding process and make the opening big enough for the female, but not the male. Believe it or not, the male can fertilize the eggs just fine from outside the pot. And he can’t eat them or the eggs.
And for the best results, make sure the cave or crevice is always dark, especially until the fry emerge!
Males may look like they’re being aggressive towards the female, but they are actually just showing off and trying to grab their attention, a bit like a peacock would showing off its feathers.
How Do I Know if my Female Has Spawned?
When she’s ready to finally spawn, most dwarf cichlid females will disappear into an enclosed space for a while. So if you notice she has been hiding for a few days, it’s a good sign that she is ready to, or already has spawned.
What to Feed Them?
After they first hatch, your babies will live on their egg sack for the first to 7 days. Once that is gone and they are mobile, small microfauna that are already found in most established community tanks will be enough for a few days.
After a week to ten days, you can add a small amount of fry powder mixed with water and drop it close to the fry group using a pipet or something similar. Do this up to three times a day until they are large enough to start eating small baby brine shrimp.
You can find specialized ‘small’ shrimp meant for specifically feeding fry at most aquarium shops or online.
After about a week they should be big enough to start eating the normal foods you’re feeding your adult fish. This is also a good time to move them to a breeding tank if you planned to.
Can they be kept in a community tank?
Yes, dwarf cichlids actually do better in community tanks. The best fish to share a tank with are top water column schooling fish like tetras and pencilfish.
Are They hard to keep?
It depends on which one you want to keep. With over 100 sub-species in the cichlid family, there are a variety of levels of difficulty. But on the whole, even beginning aquarist can be successful keeping these.
How many should be kept together?
This depends on how large the tank is. For 20 gallon tanks it’s best to keep one to two fish, while larger tanks can hold schools of seven to ten.
Can I keep a single species?
Yes, it’s recommended to keep single species as mixing species can cause aggression, especially from males during breeding season.
Are they peaceful?
Surprisingly most dwarf cichlids are peaceful and make good companion fish. There are a few that are more semi aggressive, so it’s best to do your research before choosing the exact species to keep.
Can you keep them in a 10 gallon tank?
No, you shouldn’t keep these fish in 10 gallon tanks. 20 gallon tank is considered the smallest optimum set up for these as they like the bottom of the tank. And bigger is always better.
What can you keep with them?
The ideal community tank mates for a dwarf cichlid are upper water column schooling fish like tetras and pencilfish which both make ideal buddies. But most calm schooling fish can make good tank mates.
How many can live together?
It’s best to keep either single or pairs in smaller tanks. If you have a bigger tank, schools of 6 to 10 of the same species are okay, but it’s best to keep only one male and many females per tank to avoid aggression and possible death to the fighting males.
Apistogramma species are amazing fish and a beautiful addition to any dwarf cichlid tank. These relatively small fish are a joy to watch, breed and even feed when using live foods.
And there are plenty of color patterns and varieties to choose from, as well as levels of difficulty in keeping. So as a beginner hobbyist you can start off with an easy dwarf cichlid, then work your way up to more advanced fish keeping with rarer and more difficult specimens like a dwarf cockatoo cichlid.
Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be an Apistogramma specialist.
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I’m thrilled that you found Aquarium Store Depot! Here you’ll find information on fish, aquariums, and all things aquatics related. I’m a hobbyist (being doing this since I was 11) and here to help other hobbyists thrive with their aquariums!